Ford drives off branding track

Ford, like that other global brand Pepsi, is learning a painful lesson. Universal awareness, established and maintained by meticulous top-down marketing, does not guarantee increased sales. Far from it.

Right now Ford faces its worst crisis in Europe for a very long time. Its own share of the market has fallen over six per cent so far this year – a colossal drop in the world of motor manufacturing. Nor is Ford Europe showing any visible signs of staunching the chronic financial haemorrhage underlying this performance.

At least, not yet. The global engineering strategy known as Ford 2000 is attempting with some success to streamline production efficiency, notably by reducing the number of engine platforms on which Ford models are based worldwide.

But the malaise goes deeper than engineering and production efficiency. It concerns the Ford brand itself: for a substantial number of car buyers, it is at best meaningless, at worst, a hindrance. The dilemma is exemplified by the imminent launch of the Lincoln marque in the UK. This luxury car has nothing in common with the prosaic mass-production ethos which made Henry Ford great. Senior Ford executives, well aware of this, are currently agonising over whether a marque relatively unknown in the UK should be introduced as the ‘Lincoln’ or the ‘Ford Lincoln’.

That sounds as laughable as a theological discussion about angels on a pinhead: until you look at other Ford marques. What relevance does the Ford brand have to Jaguar, or to recently launched ranges such as the Ka, Galaxy, Probe and its imminent successor, the Cougar? In effect, Ford is already subordinating its corporate name to the category brands: Mondeo is by name and nature a genuinely global sub-brand. The Escort, or rather its successor brand name, will go down the same route. Likewise, the Ka is an attempt to establish credentials in a wholly un-Ford sector, the minicar – though it has met with mixed success so far.

But all this sub-brand funkiness has a cost; and not simply a financial one, though that is steep enough. There is a strong likelihood that Ford will lose its way if it handles the branding transition with less than extreme sensitivity. A central proving ground of change, as so often, is the dealership system – which is badly in need of major surgery. Suitably rationalised, motivated and dovetailed into the new category management system, it will provide a powerful fillip for Ford’s new multi-polar brand strategy. But that’s a tall order, even for Ford.

News, page 7; feature, page 44

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