Ford pays attention to its competition, of course, but the category its chief marketer really draws inspiration from is the video-game industry.
Jim Farley, group VP-sales and service at Ford Motor Co., says he's been carefully studying the gaming industry, watching how it creates buzz with movielike trailers, prelaunches new products and excites a passionate fan base.
"As marketers, we're all intoxicated with the shiny new things. ... [We have to] innovate on industry conventions as much as on the shiny new things," Mr. Farley told the audience at the Association of National Advertisers' Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando, Fla. "Innovate where others have gone on autopilot."
Mr. Farley did just that, bucking an auto-industry tradition and experimenting with prelaunching new products, inviting journalists into the fold and creating demand for a product that didn't yet exist. But no big bets come without risk, and there were missteps along the way. Mr. Farley promised the audience up front that he wouldn't be showing a lot of ads. Instead he'd be talking about the lessons Ford learned as it came "close to the brink."
"We've been going out of business for the last ten years," Mr. Farley said. "When you're going out of business you have to make some pretty big bets."
The first attempt at embracing prelaunch marketing was the Fiesta Movement, which turned out to be a huge success for the company. Conventional wisdom had always been to hold off on promoting new products, so consumers wouldn't shun the previous model and drive down the price.
But with social media, consumers could opt in to the experience, to learn about the new product months in advance. It also didn't hurt, especially in the depths of the recession and accompanying auto-industry crisis, that social media was a cheaper alternative.
"That slow-burn approach allows you to spread your media buy over a longer period of time," Mr. Farley explained, noting that up to 20% of Ford's marketing budgets are now spent on prelaunch activities.
But not every prelaunch campaign went as well as Fiesta Movement. "Escape Routes," a prime-time reality show that aired on NBC and promoted the redesigned Escape, raised awareness of the new model a bit too much. Ford ended up having to discount some of the older models as sales slowed in anticipation of the new release.
"Taking prelaunch to prime time maybe wasn't the best idea," Mr. Farley said.
Mr. Farley also says he took cues from the video-game industry when it came to working with the media. Instead of holding journalists at arm's length until a new product was unveiled at an auto show, Ford began inviting journalists behind the scenes. It gave them sneak peeks and generated buzz before the product even existed.
That concept has trickled down to the dealers. Before a new product rolls out to the lots, the first models produced are sent to dealers, so they can host preview nights -- a concept that harkens back to the 1950s and 1960s.
"We want to be the brand that the average person feels most engaged with," Mr. Farley said. "We don't want to be the fanciest company, we just want to engage people."