BRAND HEALTH CHECK: Ford - How can Ford fend off soaring rival Vauxhall?

While Ford remains the UK's bestselling marque, many in the industry doubt it will stay there long, and say a lack of cohesive brand identity is the problem.

Ford is a company in trouble. This week Peter Fleet, Ford of Britain's marketing director, shifted sideways into a non-marketing role after just two years in the post. But while his move suggests the company may be willing to undertake some much-needed change, critics remain unconvinced.

The problem with Ford, they say, is that it is blind to its fundamental problems.

Shortly after Fleet became marketing director, he admitted that Ford concentrated its media spend on one product at a time, rather than adopting what he saw as a "scattergun approach" (Marketing, April 25 2002).

But it is arguably this reluctance to invest long-term in the wider marque that is at the root of Ford's problems.

What, indeed, does the Ford brand stand for? Its strapline, 'Engineered to last', could apply to any modern car company. Critics say that Ford has little identity beyond that of a well-known mass-volume car manufacturer.

As a result, Ford's advertising, principally created by Ogilvy & Mather, tends to feel inconsistent.

Last year, a TV ad for the Mondeo model featured cartoon characters Tom and Jerry; another, for the Fiesta, featured an office worker pretending to be ill by dotting lipstick on his face so he could skive off work and drive around in his car.

Although produced to sell particular models, the executions were worlds apart in style - and neither conveyed the Ford brand.

Last year, the car manufacturer failed to capitalise on its centenary - UK sales dropped 5.46% - while its nearest rival, Vauxhall, also celebrated its centenary, saw sales increase 2.45% and is widely expected to become the market leader by year's end.

Marketing asked former Ogilvy Group chief executive Paul Simons, now chief executive of strategic agency Passion & Partners, and former Ford and Toyota marketer Mike Moran, now worldwide director of marketing and strategy of Thames Water, how Ford could return to growth.

VITAL SIGNS

UK market share (%)

2003 2002 2001 2000

Ford 14.7 15.6 16.4 16.9

Vauxhall 12.7 12.4 12.6 13.4

Renault 7.3 7.6 7.4 7.3

Peugeot 7.2 8.2 8.4 8.5

Volkswagen 6.9 7.0 7.0 7.0

Source: Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders

DIAGNOSIS

Paul Simons

The obvious question is whether, from a brand point of view, Ford is suffering from being a jack of all trades and master of none.

Ford lacks a skewer running through its brands that has resonance with the consumer. Well, not one you could chat about in the pub, anyway - and that's always a good test.

There is a difference between Ford as a name and the positioning of its individual models. My brother-in-law bought a Focus, but sold it six months later and bought a BMW. He bought the Focus on rational grounds, but soon realised it was characterless.

I believe strongly that conventional segmentation is largely useless.

People will make apparently strange choices because they are outside classic segmentation rules. You have to answer a simple question: given a free hand, why would you buy a Ford? It's a tough one - not because Ford cars are bad, but because of the competition.

The brand must be in total alignment with the product. The Ford brand is about scale, money, manufacturing, engineering, technology and factories - rather than sexy parent to a great range of cars.

Mike Moran

I doubt this page has seen a brand in a worse state. Ford has been in freefall for the past 16 years.

In the 80s, a 30%-plus market share was commonplace and Ford of Britain profits regularly bailed out the US and funded worldwide management bonuses.

Market leadership was a given.

Last year, Ford clung on to leadership with a measly 14.7% share - just 50,000 units ahead of Vauxhall, which had claimed leadership of both the fleet market and the small-car sector with its Corsa. I confidently predict Vauxhall will finish 2004 as market leader. So how did it get this bad?

Since the excellent latest versions of the Focus and Mondeo were launched two years ago, there has been a string of indifferent products. At last month's annual What Car? awards, Ford failed to receive a single nomination in any category. Its promotional strategy is desperate and distressed; Ford's brand communications have the creative consistency of my three-year-old daughter's paintings.

Ford's marketing schizophrenia clearly mirrors its boardroom angst. The next Focus, to be launched at the end of 2004, really is make or break.

TREATMENT

- Develop a deeper brand essence that does justice to the nature of the organisation. This would help join up all marketing and communications that historically suffer from superficial endlines.

- Examine other global brands in a variety of markets where brand equity is incremental to product attributes.

- Decide what it wants to be in the UK and then develop a consistent sales and marketing plan to support it.

- Embrace the ubiquity of the brand and stop pretending to be an aspirational brand.

- Alternatively, make a realistic assessment of what a sustainable volume and share can be and develop a timeline to achieve it.

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