‘Smartphones on wheels’: Why Ford is prioritising innovation as cross-category comparisons rise
Consumers are comparing brands across sectors more than ever, fuelling Ford’s appetite for innovation. This will become even more essential given the move to electric vehicles is a “huge brand switch moment”, says marketing boss Pete Zillig.
The automotive industry is going through major transformation as the electrification of vehicles gains pace. But the shift to electric is just one of the ways the sector – and Ford in particular – is innovating.
Connected experiences, ecommerce and added value services are also key areas of focus for the brand, all of which are becoming more important as consumers no longer just compare the Ford experience with that of other car marques.
“What’s really struck me over the past couple of years, not just within this role but generally, is how much customers are comparing their experiences across categories,” said Pete Zillig, director of marketing, Europe at Ford Motor Company, speaking at Advertising Week Europe this week on a panel hosted by VMLY&R.
“It’s not like a customer is just comparing their car experience with another car [company]. They’re comparing it across categories.”
He suggested consumers might define their best digital experience by their Apple iPhone, for example, their best ecommerce experience by Amazon and their best customer service experience by John Lewis, which means Ford now needs to compete with these brands in terms of its offer.
“We’ve found we need to be increasingly aware of that cross-category comparison and therefore the innovation we’re driving now is not just about the vehicle itself, but the experience that surrounds that vehicle as well,” he added.
As cars basically become smartphones on wheels, surrounded by a whole bunch of other experiences, it’s going to be so important that we keep innovating as the comparison is probably going to be beyond our category.
Pete Zillig, Ford Motor Company
While the move to electric vehicles is clearly a major focus for innovation, he believes it will be the digital experience that will be “hugely differentiating” going forward. The screens on dashboards have already grown in size and they are going to get bigger.
“That’s a really important piece of real estate. One obviously in terms of the relationship with the customers, but also just how the customer gets to interact with that. How simple it is, how easy it is, how intuitive it is and frankly, if that’s more difficult than how you operate your smartphone then the customer won’t be interested in using that piece of technology,” he said.
“As cars basically become smartphones on wheels, surrounded by a whole bunch of other experiences, it’s going to be so important that we keep innovating as the comparison is probably going to be beyond our category.”
However, that’s not to say Ford isn’t going to be “up against it” within its own category too, given a new electric vehicle will launch every 10 days this year in Europe, he said.
In addition, Zillig describes consumers’ move to electric vehicles as a “huge brand switch moment”, as Ford saw with the launch of its Mustang Mach-E model.
“Over 80% of the people who chose to buy a Mustang Mach-E were new to the Ford brand. There is this pivotal moment in the industry where Ford needs to step up,” he added.
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Another key area Ford has been focusing on is customer experience, which Zillig admitted has been relatively disjointed in the past.
“The pandemic changed everything for everybody and we saw a huge acceleration of digital change in the business. We suddenly realised how fragmented our customer journey was, and we were often looking at it through the lens of Ford and not the lens of the customer,” he explained.
“Quite simply, being able to recognise a customer across all touchpoints instantly, and for a customer not to have to go through that laborious cycle of repeating who they are or what their password is at each stage, has been a really key thing for us.”
The pandemic has also accelerated Ford’s ecommerce plans, with consumers more willing than ever to make big ticket purchases online.
Over 80% of the people who chose to buy a Mustang Mach-E were new to the Ford brand. There is this pivotal moment in the industry where Ford needs to step up.
Pete Zillig, Ford Motor Company
“Who would have thought somebody would shell out £50,000 or £60,000 for a vehicle just by clicking ‘buy’ on a site? That’s a big thing. And hats off to [Elon] Musk and to Tesla who have really forced that agenda and we know that is the benchmark we all need to aspire too,” Zillig said.
“The ecommerce journey has been a huge transformation for us in terms of how hard we’re pushing on that and how central and pivotal that’s going to become to our business in terms of being a primary sales channel going forwards.”
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Ford’s commercial vehicle business is another area the company is refreshing. The electric Transit van, the E-Transit, is now supported by a series of services, including charging and telematics, for example. And the car marque has just launched a separate business within Ford called Ford Pro, which stands for productivity.
“We’re really focused in that business on delivering ‘up-time’ for our customers through electrified vehicles that are connected to a whole bunch of services. That’s a huge leap, even over the past two or three years,” said Zillig.
“You see in that example how Ford is transitioning from being just a vehicle manufacturer to being a vehicle provider surrounded by services and software, and who would have thought that was going to be Ford five years ago?”