How Not to Market the Ford Flex

Business Week has an interesting article about Ford’s new marketing czar, Jim Farley. Ford has effectively been having an identity crisis the past few years, struggling to sell cars while it has a reputation for selling trucks and SUVs. The solution so far doesn’t seem especially brilliant, but it’s certainly not bad. Initial ideas include getting dealer input and feedback on marketing campaigns and having strict control over the branding of each model.

Who knows if this will help Ford after their recent $8.7 billion (with a b) loss, though I’m pretty sure marketing alone isn’t going to cut it. Especially if this is what they come up with for their new seven-passenger crossover/SUV, the Flex:

The Flex is supposed to be a hip urban vehicle that Ford hopes will attract people for its design aesthetic rather than utility. At Farley’s urging, the team honed the Flex brand mission from a page, to a paragraph, and then to one sentence: “For people in search of stimulation.”

[Flex product manager Usha] Raghavachari’s brand book instructs dealers and ad makers that the Flex will never be shown with picnicking families, beach volleyball games, or dogs. No mentions of cup holders. “We can’t have this turn into a dog-drool minivan, but it might if we don’t exercise discipline,” says [CEO of Team Detroit, Ford’s ad agency, George] Rogers. All photography of the Flex was shot at night to drive home the nocturnally hip, ready-to-go-clubbing image Ford is aiming for.

So the nocturnally hip, ready-to-go-clubbing, no dogs and no family picnic, in search of stimulation person is going to buy a seven-passenger car? The look of the Flex certainly fits the trendy person they describe, I’ll give them that, but I’m not sure that kind of person buys seven-passenger vehicles. People who buy seven-passenger vehicles tend to be big on utility. It’s the whole seven people in one car thing. People rarely show up to go clubbing in a minivan, but I don’t think that’s because minivans lack style.

None of that to say I think the Flex is a bad car. It looks pretty cool and it’s effectively the more attractive cousin of the Taurus X (both have similar starting prices and seating configurations). I’m just not convinced it’s the car of choice for urban hipsters. It’s more likely an ideal car for young families who can’t stand the thought of driving a minivan (or a frumpy looking Taurus X) but still need that kind of utility.

The biggest draw of the Flex seems to be its stylish utility. Just as it’d be a marketing mistake to ignore the style and focus on the utility, I think it’s a marketing mistake to ignore the utility and focus on the style. People want both.

2 thoughts on “How Not to Market the Ford Flex”

  1. There’s an old adage that you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man, but you can sell a young man’s car to an old man. (See: Original Ford Mustang, Honda Element). With the horrific failure of Ford’s last minivan (the Freestar/Windstar), they had to do something radically different. So why not pitch it in a completely new direction? Sell it to the hip-hop pimp my ride crowd. Even if they don’t buy it, the thinking is that the soccer moms and empty nesters that really should be buying minivans will be more attracted to the cool vibe and actually plunk down cash. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are ads for the Flex in Parenting AND in Rolling Stone. Is it a silly car for rappers? Maybe, but if Soccer Mom’s kid points out the ad, maybe she will see that it really is the perfect car for her.

    Almost as interesting is the radical shift this vehicle underwent on the way to market. In nearly identical form, I saw it at the Detroit Auto Show in 2003. My thought was “Mom would love it”-it had minivan room, and the interior was festooned with blond wood trim and wicker basket details. The exterior styling has carried over an upright, vintage look, and the grooves in the sides recall (to me, anyway), the horizontal ribbing in a ’30s or ’40s woody station wagon (without wood trim, real or artificial). The whole effect almost seems to be “old Land Rover”.

    Not my kind of car, but it ought to help people forget about the Windstar and move the company towards the future. More significant, I think, are the upcoming Fiesta and European Focus hatchbacks-the first new Fords I’d actually want to buy since, well, the SVT Focus died.

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