“WE LIVED on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” proclaims the actor playing Sean Parker, one of the Facebook pioneers in the film “The Social Network”. Earlier than most of his rivals, Jim Farley also understood how important the internet was becoming to car buyers. Now, as global marketing chief for Ford, he is hoping to push America’s second-biggest carmaker to the leading edge of online advertising.
This year in America he launched the Fiesta, a European-styled subcompact, using internet campaigns, and introduced the new Explorer SUV on Facebook. Early next year he plans to launch a new Focus compact car globally via the internet. Mr Farley uses traditional media as well as online advertising, but combines both with unconventional marketing.
Ads for mass-market cars are normally dull affairs, but Ford was recently named “Marketer of the Year” by Advertising Age, a trade magazine. And Mr Farley’s methods seem to be helping Ford accelerate into the fast lane. On October 26th the company reported a $1.7 billion profit for the third quarter. This was helped by improved quality and the halo effect from not having to seek a government bail-out and declare bankruptcy, unlike its Detroit rivals. Ford is now hiring workers and paying down its debt. “We are moving from fixing the fundamentals of our business and weathering the downturn to growing the business,” declared Alan Mulally, Ford’s boss.
Mr Mulally poached Mr Farley in 2007 from Toyota, where he had worked for 17 years, often using guerrilla-marketing techniques. Mr Mulally, who had joined Ford the year before, wanted to remake the firm with his “One Ford” global design and development strategy. The idea is that by knitting together far-flung operations with only small adjustments for local tastes, the same cars could be sold in America, Asia and Europe. Mr Farley’s brief was to unify Ford’s marketing and advertising.
Mr Farley found customers were indifferent to the brand—which, he says, “is worse than customers not liking Ford.” Part of the reason was the firm’s image, at least in America, as a Midwestern, staid producer of pickup trucks. As much as Americans seem reluctant to give up their petrol-guzzling SUVs, he concentrated on promoting small, fuel-efficient cars, with a similar message around the world to advertise them.
The launch of the Fiesta in America was a test of the Farley strategy. The car was already made in Europe and Asia. Ford imported European Fiestas and recruited 100 media-savvy members of the public to act as “agents”. In return for a free car for six months, plus insurance and petrol, they agreed to upload their adventures in online videos and to blog about them. The so-called “Fiesta Movement” created a buzz and the car gained the highest vehicle awareness among the public of any car in its segment, says George Rogers, who runs Team Detroit, Ford’s advertising agency.
Mr Farley decided to take a leaf out of the Fiesta book for the global launch of the Focus, which is planned as the centrepiece of Ford’s transformation into a producer of smaller and more environmentally friendly cars. Again, people will be recruited but this time from applicants around the world. They will then be taken to southern Europe next spring to test the new car and to tell their friends about it on Facebook and Twitter in German, Russian, French and any other language. “Word of mouth is more believable than traditional advertising,” says Mr Farley.
The new Focus will be built on one platform and will have the same engine, transmission, chassis and main body in all the markets where it is sold. The current version of the car, which was launched in 2000, was promoted with over 20 different advertising campaigns created by semi-autonomous marketing units. Ford intends to have a global theme this time, but does not rule out tailoring some advertising to local markets where it is felt appropriate. Detroit has long talked about making global cars, but ended up with many differences. The coming together of the world online could give Ford that advantage, provided the Farley strategy continues to run well.