The World: Ford hopes it has hit the fast lane to redemption

Its bailout-free image is making American drivers reconsider the Ford brand for the first time in years, Ann Cooper writes.

Earlier this month, on Fox's hugely popular American Idol, a series of new 30-second ad spots touting Ford's Fusion 2010 debuted. Its sister model, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, was also promoted via American Idol ad spots. Conspicuous more by its presence rather than its absence, the campaign, themed "We speak car", was the beginning of a four-month multimedia blitz focusing on fuel economy and new technology. Both are subjects Ford is banking on being close to the hearts and purse-strings of the US public.

Well, it's a start at least. In such harrowing economic times, when the news pouring out of Detroit gets grimmer and grimmer, Ford has continued its eighth year of American Idol sponsorship, thus projecting the appearance of optimism and growth.

"Quite honestly, and this is going to sound a little crazy, but we are trying to operate business as usual," George Rogers, the president and chief executive of WPP's Team Detroit, the lead agency for Ford, says. "Our strategy is to differentiate ourselves by acting, producing and launching on a regular cadence and keeping our brand in consumers' consciousness with strong and important products."

Meanwhile, Ford's two big rivals GM and Chrysler, whose brands include Jeep and Dodge, are practically frozen in time until 31 March, 2009. That's the date when the Obama administration's auto task force will give its verdict on whether to grant another round of federal loan funds to keep the two car-makers solvent. So Ford is taking the high road by being the only one of the triumvirate not to accept a government handout. As a result, it is reaping a harvest of positive PR and raised awareness.

Not accepting the bailout puts Ford "in a very different position to Chrysler and GM", Rogers says. "But we're not going out and declaring that. We are just trying to act different. It's really laying it out there and we're letting the American public make its own decision."

Another difference, Rogers says, is that in 2009, Ford has several new product launches. "We think we have products for the times. The Fusion Hybrid and the Fusion are both mileage leaders in their segments and our research says that high-mileage vehicles are surrogates for other brand-building attributes, such as quality. It's clear to us that this will not only help sell Fusion, but also help invigorate the Ford brand."

Rogers says that current circumstances make advertising critical. "If you look at the past ten to 15 years, Ford's, GM's and Chrysler's market share has been declining," he says. "Advertising has to force the consumer to reconsider Ford brands. We've lost generations of Ford buyers in the past, and we need the American public to wake up and consider us again."

Ford is pursuing a brand-building strategy and that means focusing on drivers higher up the buying funnel. This is the opposite of the more retail-driven "buy us or we'll go under" strategies of its rivals.

Sales for all car manufacturers have plummeted this year. February's 9.1 million car sales were the worst February performance in 40 years. Car sales overall fell 41 per cent for the same month.

GM was the biggest loser, with sales falling 53 per cent. Ford dropped 48 per cent, and Chrysler more than 40 per cent.

And the non-US companies were not much better. Toyota's US sales fell 40 per cent (its first operating loss since the end of World War Two). Honda dropped 38 per cent for the month, and Nissan was down 37 per cent. As a result, the losses have been having a profound effect on many car companies' advertising and marketing strategies.

GM, for example, one of the biggest ad spenders, announced it is cutting $800 million from its advertising and marketing budgets for 2009. It plans to eliminate three of its eight brands - Saturn, Hummer and Saab - and reduce the number of Pontiac models. Moreover, the car-maker has scaled back on its costly sports sponsorships.

In the meantime, Chrysler has been busily promoting employee pricing deals, as well as offering thousands of dollars in rebates and 0 per cent financing. "It's not about brand-building right now, it's about retail messaging," a Chrysler spokesman says. "We've extended our employee-pricing messaging at least through March and that's the focus of any advertising we're doing. There are other things in the works, but right now, until we see sales moving, the focus is on getting consumers in the door. So what the plans are for the balance of the year, who really knows."

But not everyone has been adversely affected by the sales slump. The Korean car-maker Hyundai actually saw sales increase by 14 per cent in January 2009, helped in part by the weak won. It was the only major car-maker to advertise on the Super Bowl and the Oscars, with several ad campaigns extolling its new 2009 Genesis, which captured the prestigious North American Car of the Year award at this year's Detroit car show.

Hyundai has also been touting a new consumer programme, called Hyundai Assurance, promising new Hyundai customers that it will take the car back with no credit penalty if the buyers lose their jobs during the payment contract. In fact, Hyundai credits the January sales increase to this programme. It's a strategy that's winning the company respect as well as increased brand awareness. "There's a lot of notice for what Hyundai is doing," Rogers says. "Hyundai is doing some clever and smart initiatives, and the voice it has is appropriate for the times."

And in this economy, that might just be all the company needs to propel it into the big league with its best-selling import counterparts: Toyota, Honda and Nissan.