What Does Ford Want Us To Unlearn?

Ford wants the European market to see them differently. Perhaps they could start by being different?

Take it all back. Unlearn. Image: Ford UK
Take it all back. Unlearn. Image: Ford UK

A number of years ago, I watched professional cyclist, Peter Sagan being interviewed during the Tour de France. Asked what would prevent him winning the green (points) jersey in that year’s race, he rather naively replied, unluck. Sagan is Slovakian, and while his grasp of English may have been slightly tenuous at the time, we all understood what he was getting at. But I have not gathered you here today to discuss the nuances of the English language, nor the ways in which it can be misinterpreted. We are here instead to Unlearn.

In a recent press conference outlining Ford of Europe’s new positioning, Ford’s European President, Jim Farley outlined his big idea for the blue oval brand — the standout aims being to:

Establish a more focused, more emotional lineup
Aim these models at high growth segments
Be more distinctive
Be a brand that people love

Farley’s ambition is to transcend carmaking (so 20th century) and become in his own words, “an auto and mobility company”, stating that Ford wants to “do for car owners what iTunes did for music fans.” To this end, they recently introduced FordPass, a smartphone app which offers users traffic and parking information. Well, Rome was not built in a day.

Central to this is Ford’s latest marketing communication, heralded by the clumsily memorable term, Unlearn. Now by definition, in order to unlearn something, one must first undo the process of learning — to rid one’s mind of previously held orthodoxies. This is what Mr. Farley wants us to do. To jettison our preconceived notions of the Ford brand and see it instead as an enlightened force for auto-mobility.

Unlearn highlights Ford’s new performance hero models — the bulk of which are American in origin. Yet in order for the blue oval to succeed as they hope, we will all need to get out there and buy, lease or otherwise purloin Fiesta’s, Foci and Mondeos in ever increasing numbers, to say nothing of Ecosport’s, Edge’s and ‘Stangs. It’s not asking much is it?

Image: haynesgrp
Image: haynesgrp

Ford UK’s marketing manager, Richard Beard explained the Unlearn execution to marketing magazine, Campaign recently, saying UK customers are inclined to associate the carmaker solely with family cars. “We want people to think about the Ford brand and move on from some ideas they have. It’s a great opportunity to encourage people to reappraise us,” He explained. 

A quick straw poll: Who outside of Ford enthusiast circles loves Fords? It wasn’t always thus however. Throughout the seventies, eighties and into the nineties, Fords and in particular, the performance-orientated models represented (almost) every young man’s fervid aspiration. Today, Ford offers little with that impact, especially among the young and impressionable. But times and people move on and a Mondeo Titanium X can no longer be expected to embody a formative experience; our expectations now turning on greater highs. Enter the hero cars.

Image: Ford UK
Is it a bird, is it a plane? Nope, it’s an UNFord. Image: Ford UK

What Ford is most likely chasing here is something global advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi describe as Lovemarks, the idea of “creating loyalty beyond reason”. According to Saatchi; “Lovemarks transcend brands. They reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Take a brand away and people will find a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. You don’t just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately.” 

Clearly Unlearn cannot achieve all this heavy lifting by itself. So will more crossovers, more Vignale, and less Ka equal more profit for the Blue Oval in Europe? With European registrations for 2015 of 1,039,155 cars — up 8.3% on the previous year, and the division showing a small profit for the first time in a decade (thanks to some crafty accounting), there’s clearly much to be done to become a “brand that prospers in good times and bad”.

Changing perceptions requires a little more than some clever marketing — which I’m not convinced this is by the way. It requires a fundamental rethink of Ford’s entire European offer. Perhaps one which asks whether European motorists want warmed-over World cars rather than something developed and styled specifically for them back in Merkenich.

The Fords people loved were cars the average customer aspired to, but today they don’t aspire to Fords — particularly the core models on offer now. Both CEO Mark Fields in Dearborn and Jim Farley in Cologne surely know this, but lack a credible solution for the simple reason that there probably isn’t the money to develop one. So window dressing such as this will have to suffice until something more convincing can be dreamt up. Meanwhile, as for Unlearn, I wish them unluck.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “What Does Ford Want Us To Unlearn?”

  1. I find the Ford ad completely impenetrable.

    “Forget Mondeo Man”. What does that mean? The new Mondeo is so easy to drive, even a woman can handle it? It finally looks good enough for a woman to buy it? The old Mondeo was a piece of repmobile shit?

    Basically, the problem with ads like this is that they are saying “up to now our cars have been pretty poor, now we’ll admit it and change”. Ad companies present this sort of thing and their clients should say a big, and offended, NO.

    And the end shot featuring just three cars, none of which will be big sellers, without featuring the actual cars Ford wants you to buy underlines the fact that (in their own view) their current product isn’t fit to share stage with their halo cars.

    Did Farley really make that iTunes comment? It is utterly meaningless. Apart from his historical ignorance since, if we look back 100 years or so, Ford actually were the Apple of the motoring industry, the only way they can do today what Apple have done with iTunes (making a device then selling you the content) is if they take over all the World’s petrol stations. Otherwise it’s just a perfumed fart of a wish.

  2. The marketing people who devised this should be put on leave. The best way to change perceptions is to change the product. There might be people in management who think Fords are good enough already (they are all more than adequate) and who feel that the problem is in perception not the product. Actually that’s plain wrong. They need to keep improving until the message sinks home. Show, don’t tell is the rule from script-writing and it’s right here too.
    This campaign is probably going to be quite damaging. Ford enjoy quite a lot of goodwill. Building affordable fun cars would be a better way to go than underlining perception problems.

  3. That point about trying to sell world cars in Europe clangs like a bin lid being beaten with a crowbar. You could say that BMW and Benz sell world cars so why does Ford of Europe have to tailor Fiestas and Foci to the Europeans. I suppose the answer is that the rich are everywhere the same and non-rich people more varied. They can’t afford the luxury of over-engineering.

  4. Myles Gorfe writes: Unlearn what? Granada 3.0 Ghia X? Ford Escort XR3i? Ford Sierra Sapphire? Ford Fiesta ST180? Ford Mondeo 2.0 GL? Ford Fusion? Ford Capri 2.8 GLX? Ford Mondeo Titanium X 2.5 Duratec? That’s a lot to unlearn. And what about the Ford Granada Chasseur? Or the Ford Granada Ghia coupe?

  5. While I can see where they are coming from (well, sort of), the message still feels completely wrong. We all scoff at the marketeers’ constant attempts to shove blue sky thinking down our throats, here they have managed to come up with an ambiguous and mostly negative message, when what they’re really asking us to do is RETHINK what we’ve known Ford to stand for. All they’re really doing after all is announcing that they’re bringing cars not previously available to the European markets, like the Mustang or Edge…

    1. Yes Mark, but forgetting the Mustang’s Lean Years, it’s hard not to make it look at least partially cool. Now, if they could make the Ka look cool, I’d really be impressed.

  6. It could be that a lot of people know good things about Ford. This ad is not speaking to the large numbers of people who have a Ford. Translated it seems to say “You might think our cars are a bit boring and, frankly, not well made but really, they are not. Look at this exciting pictures of cars you probably can´t fit into your life as easily as a Fiesta, Focus, Galaxy or Mondeo.”
    If I was Ford I´b be looking for ways to make the cars as desirable as the best of the competition instead of telling people that most people don´t rate Ford very highly.

  7. Funnily enough, whilst bewailing the generally poor standard of press advertising with another denizen of the design industry just the other week, I launched into a tirade about this very campaign.

    The word UNLEARN is an ungainly piece of uncommon vocabulary that conjures negative connotations, making it a very poor choice for a slogan. What is wrong with Ford that we must unlearn about it? What corpses are they burying? It is a leaden word with no lightness, no positivity about it.

    The problem is exacerbated by the medium. What does a billboard screaming the word UNLEARN actually demand of us? That the person viewing it must immediately dump the contents of their brain and revert to the mental age of a child? The billboard might has well shout something vaguely synonymous like STUPEFY, or another word that sounds made up, like REIGNORATE. And once the vessel’s contents have been flung into the road, what new knowledge will be scooped up in its place? On that point, the adverts are mute.

    The graphic design does not help. Colours and swoopy lines make the composition difficult to parse. And not to sound like a client for a moment, but the picture of the car just is not big enough. Product should fill the space, not graphics.

    In short: a crude message, crudely stated. A shame, as the central tenet of the campaign, to challenge and revitalise preconceptions about the marque, is an interesting one. Ford makes some excellent cars, certainly some of the best to drive, but their reputation does not reflect the last few decades of diligent furrow-ploughing. Sadly I don’t think this campaign will make much progress.

    1. Quite right Chris. It´s a negative ad campaign that does not put in place anything substantial enough to to replace the unlearned stuff. If anyone remembers this it will be remembered as a big communications failure.

    2. The shriek of metal is deafening in the creative conception for this spot – in fact it’s almost Ratner-esque in its approach. I’ve always believed you should never start on a negative when communicating to an audience. Insulting the customer’s choices is pretty much out as well. Yet what Unlearn says to me is ‘YOU’RE WRONG!’; to millions of existing Ford owners, it’s patronising and demeaning.

      Now I’m not for a moment saying that crafting compelling communications is easy. Blue Hive, the WPP team created to ‘craft’ Ford’s advertising probably wanted to avoid the obvious and heaven knows there’s enough of; “…Think you know Kelloggs Frosties – Think Again!” taglines out there. But that is essentially what Unlearn is saying, just in a clumsy, brash and borderline insulting manner.

      But more than anything else what this spot suggests to my cynical mind is more along these lines; “You know all those European Fords you’ve been buying for years now? Well they’re shit. Look at these lovely shiny American Fords. You like the look of yourself in them don’t you? Come on, what are you waiting for? Well, you’re getting them anyway”

      When we loved Fords, we did so because they represented us. Our lives, our hopes, how we wanted to see ourselves. Ford can’t offer us that now, perhaps because we see ourselves differently. The de-Eurofication of Ford is risky, but inevitable. Expect more of these ads. They have to sell it to us somehow.

    3. Eóin, your last paragraph reminds me of Citroën’s unspeakable “Unmistakeably German” ad campaign for the C5 – just replace “Ford” by “Citroën” and “de-Eurofication” with “de-Frenchification”.

      And isn’t it an unexpected coincidence that this campaign also started with an “Un…”?

  8. The word ‘Unlearn’ has a rather creepy Orwellian sound to it. Of course that’s no problem, 1984 came and went and is only notable, so Myles Gorfe tells me, as being the last full year of production of the Mark II Granada.

  9. I gather that this campaign was created by an internal Ford team. I would have guessed so, as the whole campaign reads like an externalisation of internal candour. What a client wants to say and what an advertising campaign should say however are similar but different. Here, they are one and the same.

    1. That is strange. It’s reminiscent, though in a more ordered way, of Patrick Pelata slagging off all the Le Quement Renaults. I really find it unseemly and counter-productive for a company to diminish its previous products. Of course, we all want to work for a sexy, flexible, blue-sky company but, hey boys, you chose to go to Ford, so act like it.

  10. Indeed, yes, Pelata´s comments were the same kind of thing. To be honest, Ford´s made plenty of decent cars. Lots of people love them. Build on that.
    Myles Gorfe has been sulking all day, I expect.

  11. Ford pour a lot of effort into ensuring that their cars are the most enjoyable to drive in their respective segments. This requires a deep level engineering commitment that will pass many people by, yet Ford do it anyway because they know people do subconsciously notice that sort of thing, and it makes for a better product. I would push this USP in a “More smiles per mile” style sunshine and happiness campaign.

  12. I agree with the general criticisms of this campaign. Ford in Europe should have a great story to tell – their broader range of cars is good, but they now offer a number of hero models which should appeal in their own right and add a bit of star dust to the rest of the range. I guess they went for UNLEARN to grab attention and create impact… but it doesn’t seem to be creating the kind of impact they would want.

    Personally, I have unlearned what I knew about Ford. My prejudices were set by driving an early model Escort Mk5 – comfortably the worst car I have ever driven. Really shockingly bad, it betrayed a deeply cynical attitude towards the customer, almost as if they had dared themselves to see just how substandard a product they could force onto the market.

    A few years later, I drove the face-lifted and re-engineered version (with the oval grill) and was surprised by the depth of improvement. It was still not a good car, but it was at least competent. Almost everything that was awful about the car – interior, drive train, chassis – had been changed for the better.

    And then several years after that, I hired a diesel S-Max on holiday, which is probably one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. Wonderfully fit for purpose (very practical and cheap to run) yet genuinely delightful to drive.

    My worry is that Ford consider this level of investment to be unsustainable, and they cut back on making their cars feel good to drive. This ad campaign suggests they don’t particularly value the qualities of their mainstream products, and that would be a great shame.

    1. I think that’s the worry. If it’s just a bullshitty ad campaign, there’s no real problem. But if Ford actually believes that there was something seriously wrong with the cars it’s been making for the past 15 years, that is a problem.

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