The car industry has been defined by Taylorism for much of the last century. The scientific management approach has underpinned the make and sell philosophy that has dominated Big 3 thinking. After all, it was Henry Ford who famously claimed that we could have any colour we wanted, so long as it was black.
The near death experience they suffered during the financial crisis may be forcing a rethink of this philosophy however, at Ford at least. They are pinning their recent success on the ability for social media to enable them to shift from a make and sell organisation to a sense and respond one. The shift in philosophy can be defined by the words Jim Farley, chief marketer at Ford, used to describe the shift: Pilots. Scale.
It’s a philosophy that those of us from the computing industry will know all too well, as it forms the bedrock of prototyping. You experiment with lots of things on a small scale, giving users the chance to play and feedback on what they like and what they don’t like. You then improve those that the market likes, and ditch those they don’t.
It’s a relatively simple and effective way to cross the chasm between the early adopters, that should form the petry dish of all your new developments, and the mass market that will turn your innovations into commercial successes. It is however an approach that has not commonly been used in the car industry.
“We test it, and if it works, we scale it right away. It’s allowed us to innovate where others have gone on autopilot. It’s not a very fancy message,” Farley told attendees at the Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing conference. “But it’s just as important as the shiny new things.”
So how did Ford do this?
Farley explains that they allowed early adopters to opt-in to the prototype program, so they were self-selecting those with a keen interest in what was to come from the Ford production line. These people were then shown early versions of the product a year or so ahead of the planned release date. This then gave Ford the opportunity to respond to the feedback given to them by the early adopters.
The results were significant. Farley reveals that at the launch of the Fiesta, it was the early adopters that did most of the marketing. Trade publications ended up interviewing them rather than Ford employees, and it resulted in significant brand awareness before a dime had been spent on traditional advertising.
This success has seen Ford shift 20% of the launch budget of each car towards pre-launch activities, thus allowing them to tap into the ideas and feedback of the very people they hope will eventually buy the car.
Ford isn’t the first car company to solicit feedback from drivers via social media. Swedish company Volvo have created a Facebook application called You Inside to allow users to send them photos on what they have inside their car. This information will then be fed into the design of future models.
As the car industry themselves have however been far from early adopters in using social media for listening purposes rather than broadcasting purposes, this is indeed a feather in the cap for the social business movement.