Ford F-150 & CES: Strategy or Execution Gone Awry?

If you weren’t lucky enough to travel to January’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the various internet-based slideshow wrap-ups can be a helpful starting point to catch a glimpse of the future. Perusing these and the associated commentary, it was clear that the 2015 show was, as CNET reported, “a stunning CES for automotive tech.” Driverless cars, a glorified living room on wheels, life-size Tamogotchi-like pets that light up when they see you, cars with lasers, organic LED tail lights, and interior noise-canceling technology were just a few things that had me excited for the future of automotive. However, noticeably absent from these reviews was anything related to the “Official Vehicle of the Show” – the 2015 Ford F-150. After digging around online, the lack of Official Vehicle coverage turned out to be no surprise, because while Ford’s December 2014 press release had a lot of new features highlighted, the picture I found of the Ford F-150 at the show (their actual execution) was a remarkably underwhelming celebration of the availability of Sirius XM radio; a subscription only 1/3 of consumers seem to be interested in actually paying for according to the Sirius XM annual report.

Given that Ford has been the Official Car/Vehicle of the International CES since the distinction began in 2010, I have to assume that this is a paid sponsorship. Despite the language used in Ford’s press release, it is impossible to believe this is a designation bestowed on the most worthy vehicle that just happens to always be a Ford. Therefore, given the lack of CES coverage on the Ford F-150, it begs the Monday Morning Quarterback to ask whether or not this is still a good strategic partnership and, if so, how to find an execution that does a better job of bringing it to life?

At a strategic level, owning the distinction of the “Official Vehicle of the Show,” for a show that is increasingly featuring automotive technology, is an excellent way to ensure car industry trackers and critics will take note of Ford’s latest and greatest offering. However, the moniker only gets you so far, because an audience of influencers is smart enough to know this isn’t an award. If you’re trying to get category experts to really take note, and ideally amplify the messaging within their own networks, the “Official Vehicle” needs to be worth talking about within the context of the CES. Many car manufacturers use CES to demonstrate futuristic technologies, which will almost certainly have more wow-factor than what is available in a current year model. To me, this was abundantly true in 2015, but may not have been the case when Ford first started this sponsorship and fewer automakers had a presence at CES. So now, not only does a poor execution miss out on coverage, but it can also have the unintended consequence of making Ford look behind its competition.

Net, Ford has created a potentially valuable competitive advantage by owning the distinction of “Official Vehicle of the Show,” but as A.G. Lafley famously reminded us at P&G, “Execution is the only thing that the consumer sees.” Not only did Ford garner limited coverage of their flagship Ford F-150, but the in-show and post-show commentary was also decidedly unenthusiastic. To me, the positioning of this truck within the context of CES called to mind the “womp womp” of SNL’s Debbie Downer, because state-of-the-art features that are currently available just don’t seem innovative against 2020 technology.

Nonetheless, Ford has this asset (the “Official Vehicle” designation) and it seems worthwhile to keep it (if nothing else than to prevent competition from having it). So, how can they better create an execution that maximizes the return on the dollars they’ve invested?

Remember the objective: If you’re trying to impress the influencers, give them something impressive! Sirius XM radio most certainly isn’t it, but Ford did have some other (arguably cool enough to compete) new technology on display, and there are a lot of interesting and innovative things about the 2015 Ford F-150. For example, the new aluminum construction makes the truck 700 pounds lighter than previous F-150s. That alone is remarkable and has obvious corollaries to the push towards smaller, lighter, more powerful consumer electronics. However, looking at how they displayed the truck on-site, none of this was included prominently in their execution.

Use consumer insights: One telling sign of the mismatch between the Ford F-150 and CES was the absence of Ford celebrating the Official Vehicle status on its own communication properties. Even if you’re using the show to reach influencers and not the consumers themselves, those influencers should be relevant to increasing purchase intent. Ideally, this execution stems from a data-supported insight that Ford’s F-150 strategic target knows what CES is and is impressed that the F-150 is connected to it. Then this distinction and all the commentary it generates become a claim that Ford can use to drive purchase intent. The fact that Ford’s F-150 website has no mention of CES, or an “innovative” positioning, suggests this insight does not exist. In contrast, Ford Trucks’ January 6 Facebook post celebrated receiving the Truck Trend “Pickup Truck of the Year Award” – perhaps a much more meaningful credential in the eyes of their consumer.

Be purposeful in driving amplification: Unfortunately, even if an influencer had been impressed with the laundry list of innovations found in the press release, and wrote a story about seeing the F-150 at CES, and a person in Ford’s strategic target was reading the content, they would still see a lackluster execution that doesn’t highlight any of the innovations effectively. Social media amplification of a real world event can be an amazing way to increase the impact of marketing dollars beyond just those who attend the show: the impact can spread to an exponentially larger number of people who follow those attendees, but only if the content generated is effective. In this case, an image of the Ford execution tweeted from the show floor would do nothing to communicate the new features of the truck.

Overall, I’m sure there were many tangible or intangible benefits that came from Ford’s involvement with CES this year, but I would have a hard time calling this money well spent on marketing the F-150. Here’s to next year really bringing the razzle-dazzle so we all have something (besides snow) to tweet about!

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