Trust is the New Black: Ford Markets to "Get Real" Consumers
I have seen the future, courtesy of Ford. The company identifies 13 trends for 2013, which are interesting to filter through an electric car lens. The basic conclusion from the trends report, prepared by BAV Consulting, is that consumers want to buy products from brands they can trust. “Trust is the new black,” says one of the 13 mantras.
Talking with the Wallet
“Customers say they want to use their wallets and spending on something they believe in,” said Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s in-house futurist during a forum on the report in New York Thursday. Grant McCraken, a lecturer at Harvard Business School, adds, “Brands have behaved badly over the last 20 years, and there’s a catalogue of unfortunate choices and unworthy motives. The new goal is absolute transparency. If you don’t make yourself transparent, your competitor will. If you have sincerity, you can fail and the customer will see you as a work in progress and cut you some slack.”
You can watch a wall-to-wall video of the 13 Trends for 2013 here.
This could help Ford as it launches its green fleet, Connelly said. Ford was the only one of the Big Three not to take a bailout, but it still took what Connelly called “a journey,” and consumers saw the company turn the corner, which could lead them to root for its success.
Are We "Post-Green"?
Ford thinks we may be in a “post-green” environment, with environmental values “maturing into a way of life, rather than a niche virtue…There is a growing awareness that green acts, big and small, add up.” And buying a battery car or plug-in hybrid is definitely a green act. But how will consumers interpret Ford’s latest moves in the marketplace?
I would argue that the Ford Focus Electric is a “compliance car,” designed to meet California’s zero emission regulations. Ford has very modest goals for the car, and initially sold it only in California and the New York area, followed by 15 launch markets. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Ford is spending a tenth as much (less than $10 million) on marketing the Focus Electric as it usually spends on new model launches. The results are kind of predictable: In October, the company sold 118 of them.
Getting Real—For Real
I think consumers—especially those savvy buyers identified in the Ford report that want their brands to “get real”—can tell if a company is committed to a product, or if it’s only saluting with one hand. Says Ford: “80 percent of people say they trust a brand less when it communicates with inconsistent behavior.”
Ford isn’t skimping on its rollout of the C-MAX and Focus plug-in hybrids, and the public is paying attention. In November, the company sold 1,259 C-MAX Energis (for a cumulative total of 1,403) compared to 172 Focus Electrics.
The consumer trends identified by Ford might actually give a leg up to the new kid on the block. Tesla Motors, for instance, might be seen as a brand without the baggage and old thinking that plagues established automakers. Tesla isn’t always transparent, but it’s pretty in-your-face with its challenge to the status quo. And it's really, well, real. Certainly, the Model S has become the number one car for aspiring EV owners. Just last night I talked to a LEAF owner who really, really wants a Model S.
Tesla actually made a blink-and-you-missed-it profit. "Am happy to report that Tesla was narrowly cash flow positive last week," tweeted Elon Musk. "Continued improvement expected through year end." Don't read too much into that, but it's still interesting.
Taking Command of Your Driving
Ford thinks that some of the features it introduced on its electric cars—including SmartGauge with EcoGuide (which let’s you know how you’re doing as a green driver), Brake Coach (helps you optimize regen braking) and EcoMode (real-time driving feedback, with incentives and rewards) are what the modern consumer wants. I agree with that—frugal electric driving has become a popular science, and those tools help. And the company probably gets some brownie points for the C-MAX Energi’s recycled denim, plastic from old car battery casings and soybean-based foam in seat cushions.
The Great Escape
But Ford is really stretching it when it tries to tie its SUVs into the big green tent. Listen to this blather: “For decades, ever since Henry Ford brought it to the masses, the car has been a symbol of American freedom: The Great Frontier, Manifest Destiny, Keroucian Zen. Of course America’s open road is shifting course as younger Americans postpone getting their driver’s license, embrace alternative transportation and find refuge in the virtual world. In a world of 24/7 connectivity, real escape is hard to come by. Keeping this in mind, Ford designed and engineered the new Escape with comfort and convenience features…”
“The car has to do much more than just transport you,” Connelly said at the forum, pointing to Ford’s early debut of voice commands on the Focus. So what the Millennials who are abandoning driving in record numbers really want is cutting-edge tech and a cool place to plug in their iPods? It’s bigger than that, folks.
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