A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (which I can’t link to due to their arcane online search function) provides an interesting analysis of Ford’s recent advertising struggles, and their Sisyphean quest to find a campaign that can revive both their lagging business and their tired brand. The latest candidate: “Ford. Drive One.” Other than the obvious call to action, this is about as memorable – or distinctive – as their last few slogans: “No Boundaries”, “American Innovation” and “Bold Moves.” What are the chances this new campaign will catch on? Not very good, I would suggest. Here’s why.

Absent some smart ads from Volkswagon over the years and perhaps the Zeppelin-fueled Cadillac campaign, automobile advertising is hopelessly formulaic, shallow, dubious and – the worse crime of all – boring. Campaigns are introduced with great fanfare but often dropped several months later, fostering consumer confusion and inattention. The stubborn lack of imagination of typical car marketing – car driving down scenic roads, endless 3/4 shots of the gleaming metal, superficial appeal to stereotypical hooks (macho & flag imagery for trucks, quirky and green for hybrids) – makes it virtually impossible to differentiate what ad is for what car. Witness the recent blizzard of boring ads related to President’s Day in the United States. I was more bored and insulted by the insistence and vapidity of the ads than anything else (perhaps because I’m Canadian and the appeal to Americana had no relevance to me.) Too often the ads are trying hard to convince consumers of the inherent value or the latest model, a brave aspiration but one which has to be based on realistic assumptions of what consumers will believe. And to make matters worse – as the article points out – these global campaigns often have no linkage to local marketing driven by the dealers. So the result is often a confusing stew of loud, repetitive claims (which appear to me like desperate pleas), mechanical minutae, financial incentives and contradictory local campaigns. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, many auto companies continue to spend hundreds of millions on these clarion calls in the hopes of rehabilitating their brands and driving sales.    

Like too many other campaigns – for automobiles or otherwise – this latest effort by Ford has little chance of getting their cars under”consideration” by consumers, or providing a cogent, clear image of their brand. To their credit, Ford apparently worked hard with the dealers to ensure they would help reaffirm the campaign and become local advocates. And they obviously did a fair amount of research on the brand positioning of Ford and its peers. But I don’t give the campaign a big chance of getting any traction, let alone changing the minds of consumers. The article claims the inspiration for the campaign was Nike’s legendary “Just do it” tagline, one of the most memorable advertising slogans in history. But there are so many ways Ford cannot hope to replicate the impact of Nike’s efforts. For one thing, Nike can leverage a rich, credible heritage that supports their smart, innovative marketing which conveys a consistent, positive brand experience across advertising, local marketing, online platforms, retail experience and the products themselves. And yes, the product does matter.

Ford’s new CMO apparently wants this latest campaign to help position Ford as the “smart, green, quality and safe” choice. Sound a bit ambitious? Notwithstanding the merit of trying to latch on to themes like safety – which has essentially been owned by Volvo for years – this new brand identity is diffuse and hopelessly aspirational, rather than grounded in Ford’s resonant attibutes and values. In short, it may be too much of a stretch. You’ve got to give the Ford team plenty of credit for trying and they are doing some things right, but I suspect they will be back to the drawing board within a year. I wish them well…nobody said marketing was easy.