The car industry doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to responding to user demands. Ever since Frederick Taylor defined scientific management, the car industry has epitomised this Make and Sell philosophy. Even the Japanese encroachment has only really seen productivity improvements made on the making side.
Other industries however have notably taken a different approach. In computing for instance prototyping is now widespread, with developers releasing software that is ‘good enough’ and then relying upon early adopters to provide feedback that can then be used to improve the product enough to attract the mass market.
The financial crash has prompted a rethink however. While Ford wasn’t driven to the brink in the way GM and Chrysler were, it nonetheless looked death in the face. It was enough to persuade the company that a shift was required away from Make and Sell towards Sense and Respond. It’s a shift that Jim Farley, chief marketer at Ford, defines as Pilot and Scale.
It’s a relatively simple process. Early adopters gain access to an early version of a product (a car in this instance), and their feedback is then used to refine and improve the product before it’s released to the mass market.
“We test it, and if it works, we scale it right away. It’s allowed us to innovate where others have gone on autopilot. It’s not a very fancy message,” Farley told attendees at the Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing conference. “But it’s just as important as the shiny new things.”
Farley explained that Ford recruited early adopters via an opt-in process. These people were then shown early versions of the new Fiesta vehicle a year before it was due to be released to the public. This gave Ford ample time to solicit feedback and improve the car before its launch date.
The results were significant. Farley reveals that at the launch of the Fiesta, it was the early adopters that did most of the marketing. Trade publications ended up interviewing them rather than Ford employees, and it resulted in significant brand awareness before a dime had been spent on traditional advertising.
This success has seen Ford shift 20% of the launch budget of each car towards pre-launch activities, thus allowing the company to tap into the ideas and feedback of the very people it hopes will eventually buy the car.
Ford isn’t the first car company to solicit feedback from drivers via social media. Swedish company Volvo has created a Facebook application called You Inside, allowing users to send photos of what they have inside their car. This information will then be fed into the design of future models.
As the car industry has, however, been far from early adopters in using social media for listening purposes rather than broadcasting purposes, this is indeed a feather in the cap for the social business movement.