Things aren’t getting much easier for the mainstream, high-volume car brands.
At the end of the last decade they were savaged by a perfect storm of a territorial invasion by the German premium brands, the economic meltdown, and the opportunism of the value brands seeking to capitalise on it. Ford, GM and the like were left struggling for relevance.
Visitors to the current Geneva motor show are greeted outside the hall by a vast Ford billboard. It features the new generation of the iconic Mustang muscle car, flanked by the GT supercar and the new Edge SUV, and asks us to forget everything we know about the brand. The Mustang hero vehicle doesn’t even wear the Ford blue oval.
It’s not rocket science to work out they’re saying: we make more than just commodity cars, we’ve got the heritage and we’ve got the SUVs everyone wants these days.
Go inside and another layer of icing has been put on the cake. For the first time there’s a real range of Fords adorned by Vignale sub-branding. Vignale is the company’s premium line, also offering concierge-style customer service. And they’ve pulled off a real coup by installing a Vignale lounge in the departure area of the Geneva airport. Chillout music, free massages, coffee, chocolates, water, workstations and wifi will go down very well with the millions going through the airport – and almost certainly be more effective than the show presence.
Yet what do these things say about the Ford brand? “We make great cars. They’re well designed, comfortable, high-quality and handle well. But we can’t persuade private buyers to consider us alongside Audi, BMW Mercedes and Volvo.” And the focus on the Mustang, GT and Edge – which as a large, expensive SUV will remain a niche choice against the premium competition – makes a telling contrast with Renault. The French brand was the most distressed of all after the 2008 crash, but now boasts a confident, all-new range of cars. No halo products, no premium pretensions; just attractive, honest cars people want to buy, including electric vehicles with dedicated designs.
It begs the question of what Ford’s purpose is. The company appears to be hoping to build brand equity from its niche offerings rather than focusing on what makes Ford a real brand – offering excellent quality products at a mainstream pricepoint. Other companies have done this without denigrating their brand – look at the iPhone. And ironically Ford itself has history here.
Over 100 years ago Ford revolutionised motoring with a commodity product, the Model T. Today, in an age when mobility will alter radically, it should not be beyond Ford to help drive that change for today’s masses, be an enabler, and build an everyman brand which is also a valued one.
Give the Blue Oval back its meaning, Mr Ford, and wear it with pride.