Ford Has No Desire to Be the ‘Apple of the Automotive Industry’

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When Tesla launched in 2003, its mission was to “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.”

Fast-forward almost 20 years and every major car manufacturer has entered the ring, from Volkswagen to Toyota, Peugeot to Ford. EV sales now account for 10% (about 7.8 million) of all new cars sold globally, up 8.3% year over year, according to industry forecaster LMC automotive.

As drivers move away from gas, Ford has outlined its plans for an all-electric future in Europe. By 2035, it will only sell EVs in the market, targeting zero emissions for all vehicle sales and carbon neutrality across its facilities, logistics and suppliers. It plans to launch seven new battery-powered models in this timeframe, and it’s got a whole new marketing blueprint to go along with it.

Leading the car marque through one of the biggest transformations in its history is ex-Cheil U.K. CEO Peter Zillig, who joined the business in 2020 as director of marketing for Europe.

In early 2021, he helped bring the Mustang Mach-E to market on the continent. This moment was not only a “catalyst for this introspection,” said Zillig, it also guided his team toward a new North star: “Adventurous Spirit,” a brand ethos that was instilled at the end of 2020 to hammer home Ford’s American heritage while the business reinvents its portfolio and customer experience in Europe.

From 2023, Ford will launch seven all-electric vehicles, three new passenger EVs and four new commercial EVs in Europe.Ford of Europe

“Those two words describe the soul and DNA of the business. It’s what we want customers to feel when they walk into a dealership or drive one of our cars,” Zillig explained, saying the brand’s endline would still be “Bring on Tomorrow” across the continent.  

Bringing ‘swagger’ to electrification

Zillig said market research in 2020 and 2021 uncovered that Ford has reputation as a “trusted and reliable” brand in Europe, but consumers said while they knew it was American founded it didn’t “feel American.”

“We want to lean into our DNA and lineage, our innovation, our 100-plus-year history and the rebellion and innovation that’s always been core to our brand,” Zillig explained. “We understand the elements of ‘Americanness’ that will resonate in Europe and the ones that might not.”

In this case, being “American” means Ford is “rebellious, restless and uncompromising” as a brand, among other traits.

We want to be spirited and bring excitement to this category.

Peter Zillig, director of marketing, Ford of Europe

The first milestone of implementing this new philosophy was bringing the Ford Bronco to Europe in June with work by former agency AMV BBDO and current partner Wieden+Kennedy, which has just claimed the car giant’s entire global creative business.  

Zillig said the Mustang Mach-E launch was a turning point in how Ford of Europe marketsFord of Europe

The global launch of the Ford Mustang Mach-E was a punchy proposition exploring how the car could learn and adapt to the behavior of its driver (such as using fingerprint technology to adjust mirrors) and showcasing its battery range (a common concern among those making the switch to electric).

“That was all about bringing swagger to electrification,” said Zillig, lamenting that a lot of EV ads over the last few years felt sanitized by putting the focus on the nuts and bolts of the tech.

“It feels like everyone is trying to be the Apple of the automotive industry. It’s all very clean and pretty,” he said. “We want to be spirited and bring excitement to this category, rather than taking a distilled approach to electrification.”

Digital transformation

Over the last 12 months, Ford has been undergoing what CEO Jim Farley described as the “biggest transformation” in its history with a restructuring that split its traditional engine division and EV unit into two distinct P&Ls: Ford Blue and Ford Model E.

At the start of 2022, the European business was facing declining sales owing to Covid-19 and supply chain issues. Ford made the decision to halt production of the dwindling Fiesta model and by Q3 the tide had started turning, with the European arm bringing in $25 billion and contributing around 19% of sales to Ford’s total automotive revenue.

When you’re going through transformation at scale, you need to be more focused on fewer things that you believe will move the needle.

Peter Zillig, director of marketing, Ford of Europe

However, the brand’s total market share in Europe is still lagging home-built competitors such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. In the U.S., where it’s continuing to double down on conventional cars with a particular focus on SUVs, its captures around 13.7% of the market; in Europe it claims 4% of buyers.

For Zillig, dovetailing with the business’ wider transformation is a new approach to how it buys and plans media. Prior to 2023, the brand invested 35% to 40% of its marketing budget on digital channels—now it’s more like 70% across platforms including Google and TikTok.

“I’m excited to bring the same level of creativity and engagement to digital channels as we see in traditional ones,” he said. “People have always viewed that as a tradeoff and I don’t think it should be, we should be striving to excite customers just as much online.”

Following W+K’s snagging of the entire creative account, Zillig is looking forward to leveraging the agency’s long-standing relationship with the brand from his London base.

He explained: “It was a logical step for us to lean into a global creative network that isn’t totally new to Ford but has a track record of delivering on the kind of things we want to be doing here in Europe.”

The brand will be tracking how its new European philosophy is translating into brand uplift and sales through a myriad of hard metrics. However, it will also be exploring how the brand “makes customers feel” via social listening and market research.

“When you’re going through transformation at scale, you need to be more focused on fewer things that you believe will move the needle more quickly,” he said.

Ford certainly has big plans for an increasingly competitive market, and it’s relying on its American spirit to see those through.

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