The Marketing Profile: Jim Farley of Ford

A relentless travel schedule has left Jim Farley, group vice-president of global marketing at Ford Motor Company, feeling tired and a little crabby, and a recent visit to the Frankfurt Motor Show has done nothing to lift his mood.

Jim Farley, Ford
Jim Farley, Ford

When asked for his thoughts on the show, the 47-year-old American stifles a yawn and bemoans the lack of eye-catching concepts.  ‘It was largely disappointing, just some pretty ordinary cars,' he says. ‘You look for the big idea, the one that will make the entire industry take a left-turn.'

It is precisely this pursuit of such ‘blue-sky thinking', to coin the cliché, that led Ford to hire Farley from his job managing the Lexus brand across North America.

It is easy to see why Farley impressed Ford's bosses. His bullish manner will stand him in good stead during boardroom scuffles, while his conversational style is very persuasive. Industry commentators across the Atlantic have certainly been won over, with many tipping him as a candidate to succeed Ford chief executive Alan Mulally.

Yet unusually for a car marketer - normally the most cautious of animals - Farley is desperate to find that next ‘big idea' and has set about revolutionising Ford's global marketing structures.

If ever there was a moment to abandon the status quo, it is surely now. Detroit's reputation as the heartland of US motor manufacturing lies in tatters after two of its big beasts - General Motors and Chrysler - were forced to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Ford had got its own identity crisis out of the way a couple of years earlier, opting to sell off luxury marques Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover, while a sale of Swedish brand Volvo is expected in the next 12 months.

Mulally introduced the company's ongoing ‘One Ford' transformation plan, which aims to make it more efficient on a global level, and Farley is now hatching plans to develop a more consistent brand.

At the start of 2009, Farley appointed Henry Ford's great-great-granddaughter, Elena, as head of a new group marketing office. The first fruits of this project will be Ford's inaugural global campaign backing next year's Focus model.

‘For the first time in many years, Ford is working together as a global team on things such as media planning, buying and asset development. We don't want to waste money any more,' he says.

However, Farley denies that the decision to centralise campaign-planning will lead to awkward, one-size-fits-all advertising. Instead, he claims that, by beginning work on campaigns up to two years in advance of their roll-out, the manufacturer can provide the right marketing for all regions.

‘We will have a look and feel, and we are developing a brand story for each model, where we agree on the essence of the prod­uct and how to visualise it,' he says. ‘Those things will be similar, but we don't want to be so dogmatic and efficient in production cost that we compromise the quality.'

The strategy has also ushered in a fresh approach to how the company deals with its advertising agencies. Work will be divi­ded across Ford's three regional alliances of WPP agencies: Team Detroit in North America, Blue Team in Europe, and Blue Team in Asia-Pacific and Africa.

However, Ford will place an emphasis on the regional origin of the models in question. This is good news for European agencies Ogilvy London, MindShare and Wunderman, given the import­ance of smaller models such as the Fiesta, Focus and Ka to the marque's new global strategy.

Farley is looking for agencies to put together a ‘dream team' of creative capabil­ities to maximise the strength of each campaign. ‘We want the agencies to work together,' he says. ‘I will not accept that the Cirque du Soleil at a car show needs [a different creative approach] from PR shots or an early consumer website.

‘We'll cherry-pick people to work on the project to create a dream team, and once they are finished, they are gone. We won't assume they'll work in the agency. [Critics] think by getting one-time people you will compromise the quality, but you can maxi­mise that and cost savings,' he adds.

For all his talk of global unity, Farley realises there are topics not suited to Ford treating each region equally. For example, he admits that US consumers are not nearly as bothered about CO2 emissions as those in Europe and Asia, so communica­tions around this will be tailored to the audience.

‘It's going to come to life differently across the world,' says Farley. ‘CO2 is really important here in Europe, but in the US they just think about fuel efficiency. In Asia it's a mixture of both. So how we talk about our fuel efficiency will be very regional.'

Nonetheless, such topics are going to be vital connecting a US institution like Ford, synonymous with the Baby Boomer genera­tion, with younger consumers.

‘The car industry has always been about capturing people's imaginations,' he says. ‘Ford's strategy is not based on one big science project; from a marketing stand­point, we don't have that shiny new thing on the surface. But Ford's brand has always been about delivering things to millions.

‘We have to connect. This generation has already transformed beverages and apparel, and will rip through our industry like no generation since their parents,' he adds.

Already, car manufacturers are vying to reach the top of a new pecking order, and Farley believes a global battle between Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen will emerge. He is also wary of the more established Korean brands, and suspects the Chinese are gearing up to launch a raft of mass-market automotive brands.

Yet the technology and the models are becoming less important when it comes to communications, claims Farley. ‘In the past, companies only really talked about their products, but there is a growing trend for consumers wanting to work with well-managed brands they can trust.'

As he prepares for another long-distance trip to check on the local marketing team, Farley smiles and recalls bumping into the chief executive in Ford's corridors of power.

‘Every time I wear my little badge with the blue oval on it, Alan Mulally stops me, polishes the badge and tells me that's my job - to make Ford shine,' he says. ‘He's not interested in anything else other than making that blue oval the most beautiful thing, and when we put it on the front of a car it adds value.'

Time is against Ford, with Toyota and VW already having made significant strides with brand development and sustainability. Luckily for the company, Farley is in no mood to procrastinate.