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Ford needs a dose of reality, sales guru says

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Ford needs a dose of reality, sales guru says

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

LOS ANGELES -- Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s new sales and marketing chief, said the automaker's advertising strategy is a bust and he is wasting no time revamping Ford's approach to promoting vehicles.

Farley, a high-profile executive who joined Ford from Toyota Motor Corp., doesn't pull any punches. He described Ford marketing as a series of false starts and squandered opportunities. He criticized the automaker's history of pouring money into vehicle launches and then leaving them to languish in the market without advertising support. And he is determined to chart a new course.

"This is a time for us to be really realistic," Farley told The Detroit News during an interview at the Los Angeles Auto Show. "I'm here to break through the clutter and tell American customers in any way I can, 'You've got to look at Ford.' The task is super-clear."

Farley's ideas for recasting Ford's marketing cover a broad spectrum:

• During a dinner with journalists this week, he floated the idea of transforming Lincoln into a global luxury brand -- something Ford has ruled out in the past. Though he had already broached the idea with some Ford executives, no one was ready to talk about it publicly.

Farley acknowledged that Lincoln is unlikely to resonate with European consumers, but said it could play well in the Middle East and the emerging markets of Russia and China.

• Farley expects his first real test will be the Ford Flex, the company's new full-size crossover that goes on sale next summer.

Farley said the Flex is a vehicle only Ford could have produced, a replacement for the minivan that combines an old-school aesthetic that evokes great Ford models of the past while carving out a new niche in the market, just as the Bronco and Mustang did when they were launched. He wants Flex marketing to convey that.

"Ford has an innate ability to develop icons," he said. "This could be another iconic product. It could be a big part of the new Ford and who we are."

• "Re-engaging" Ford dealers is a priority, he said. Farley wants to do that through face-to-face meetings with retailers around the country. He plans to spend an extra day in Los Angeles this week meeting with California dealers to hear their ideas for building Ford's brands there, where the automaker's market share is 8 percent.

Farley is not daunted by that number. "I remember when Toyota was an 8 percent player," he said.

• At Toyota, Farley was famous for promoting what he called consumer-driven product development. That means building vehicles people want, rather than designing vehicles engineers think they need. Ultimately, this thinking led to the creation of Toyota's successful Scion brand.

While he has no plans to create a youth brand at Ford, Farley intends to apply the same thinking to product development. Working closely with Ford's global product development chief, Derrick Kuzak, Farley wants to give Ford's cars and trucks more emotional appeal.

"Our platforms are great," he said. "Now, we have really interesting choices to make in top-hat silhouettes. That's where I can help Derrick and his team."

Though this is his first official week on the job, Farley is already a man in motion. He shook hands with dealers, listened to pitches from ad agency reps, fielded questions from reporters and pieced together a new marketing strategy for Ford as he walked the floor of the auto show in Los Angeles.

Spend a day with him and two things become clear. First, in the world of auto marketing, the former head of Lexus USA is a rock star. Second, he started his new job at Ford with his eyes wide open.

Farley said Ford has changed its message too many times in recent years, and too often has not had the products to back it up. Now, he said, the company has the goods and the ability to keep delivering them. It just needs to convince American consumers to give them another chance.

Though he was hired to lead Ford's marketing efforts worldwide, Farley said the United States is his battleground.

"I don't have much time," he said, running his hand through his hair. "I don't have much time."

But American consumers have become jaded by marketing ploys, and he said that makes his task all the more challenging.

Consider quality. Independent firms like J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports magazine have hailed Ford's quality gains and now put its newest vehicles neck and neck with the Japanese. Farley said Fords needs to do more to communicate this to consumers, but he is struggling with how best to do that.

Ford could one-up rival General Motors Corp. by offering a 200,000-mile warranty, but he is concerned that people will be more worried about what is in the fine print. He is trying to come up with something more straightforward.

"What if we paid people if something went wrong with their car? It's an idea," he said, quickly adding that this is only one of many he is tossing around.

Farley is torn by the need to take radical action to capture the public's imagination and the financial realities of a company that has little margin for error.

"Does it make sense from a business standpoint to do stuff that has substantial risks?" he said.

Moreover, Farley is acutely aware of the many marketing missteps that got Ford where it is today. He said the last thing Ford needs is another failed attempt at brand building.

"He's a person who isn't afraid to takes risks. He isn't afraid to try something new. In his positions at Toyota, he was given the opportunity to try many new things. He was allowed to make mistakes," said George Peterson, president of California-based consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. "Ford can't afford to make mistakes. But he didn't have very many failures at Toyota."

As he moves around Ford's stand at the auto show, a former Ford marketing staff member who recently left the company for a job at Google approaches Farley. He talks about how frustrating his tenure was, describing a marketing apparatus rife with inconsistencies, false starts and opportunities missed.

"There was no process. It was just chaos," the young man told Farley. "Now, I wish I'd stayed.




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Before Lincoln can become a "global luxury brand", they need to become a true luxury brand first. Right now, they are a near luxury brand. They don't compete with BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti, Cadillac, or even Audi. Lincoln competes with second tier near luxury brands like Acura and Buick (I would include the Chrysler brand, but that brand is in worse shape than Lincoln).

I do agree with Farley about Lincoln doing well in China. Buick has made quite an impact there. Maybe Lincoln can do the same thing. They will need to expand the lineup a little more to compete head on. Lincoln will definitely need a compact sedan and maybe a large crossover to equal Buick's range of products. A coupe, convertible, or coupe-cabrio wouldn't hurt either.

I still think it's sad that Ford let Lincoln deteriorate to its current level as well as allowing Mercury to become completely irrelevant. With the current reports about increasing Lincoln's volume, making Lincoln a global brand, not attempting to take Lincoln upmarket, and uniting European and U.S. designs for Ford brand products, I have become increasingly skeptical about the future of Mercury.

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