Remembering Roy Brown, designer of the star-crossed Edsel, one of the biggest flops in automotive history.

Roy Brown, designer of the Ford Edsel
Roy Brown, Jr., designer of the Edsel.

I remember my father, who had a 45+ year career in industrial/commercial sales and marketing, having an interesting artifact hanging on the wall of his office: a hubcap from a 1958 Ford Edsel sedan.

It was an interesting prop because it represents one of the biggest marketing flops in American automotive history … and underscores what can happen when product development efforts ignore what market research is telling them.

Recently, Roy Brown, Jr., one of the key players in the Edsel fiasco, passed away at the age of 96. As the lead designer on the product, Mr. Brown bore the brunt of blame for the “glorious failure” that was the Edsel.

Of course, that rap isn’t entirely fair; introducing a new motor car is a team effort that involves a host of people. And in the case of the Edsel, the design of the vehicle was only one of several key failures.

Consider just how many ways the Edsel ran afoul of good product development practices:

  • The car was developed based on out-of-date consumer research. The late 1950s was the beginning of changing consumer tastes in car designs:  moving away from exuberant fins and outlandish colors and towards a more refined style. By the time the Edsel became available at dealerships, consumer tastes had shifted and the country was in a recession.
  • The design of the car was controversial. Its most memorable design feature was its “horse collar” grille, unfortunately referred to by some as a toilet seat. It was different from any other car on the market — but the notoriety wasn’t positive. Some wags joked that the car’s front resemble “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon,” while others were even less charitable, noting that the grille design was suggestive of a giant vulva.
  • Despite undertaking a highly publicized naming effort for the vehicle that ultimately reached more than 6,000 possibilities being considered, Ford rejected all of these suggestions and chose to name the car after the lone son of company’s founder. The “Edsel” – a clunker of a car name if ever there was one – did nothing to endear the buying public to the brand, seeming more like corporate nepotism taken to the extreme.

Ford predicted great things for the Edsel. The company launched a glitzy ad campaign for the automobile in 1957, touting it as a revolutionary “car of the future” and projecting first-year unit sales of more than 200,000 vehicles.

Instead, when it debuted in Ford showrooms in 1958 carrying a list price between $2,300 and $3,800, consumers were distinctly underwhelmed.

But even with disastrous first-year sales, Ford limped along with the Edsel until finally killing the brand in 1960. In all, only ~100,000 Edsels had been sold over three model years.

The total cost of the Edsel boondoggle to Ford was ~$350 million, which translates into nearly $2.8 billion in today’s dollars.

Roy Brown was the man held most responsible for the failure of the Edsel. But ever the optimist, the designer didn’t let this become the end of his career. In fact, Brown bounced back to work on successful new introductions such as the Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet. These turned out to be everything the Edsel wasn’t.

Mr. Brown didn’t disown his star-crossed child, either. In fact, he drove his own Edsel car (a stunning fire-engine red model) nearly to the end of his life — no doubt happy to know that in later years, mint-condition and restored Edsel cars were selling for upwards of $100,000 apiece. And there are highly active Edsel car clubs with members located throughout the United States and Canada.

So, maybe it’s not such a bad legacy in the end.

Car Company Conundrum: Auto Companies Try to Preserve Brand Loyalty

Big Three Automotive Manufacturers
The "Big Three" auto makers: Exactly how loyal are their customers?
Those of us “of a certain age” can remember the days of the Big Three U.S. auto makers. Each of them had a full brand lineup of vehicles designed to accompany a car owner’s pursuit of the American dream. For each step up the corporate or status ladder, there was a car perfectly suited for the event.

General Motors had its five “ascending” brands: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. Rival Chrysler Corporation had its five auto brands that tracked neatly with GMs: Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial.

Ford Motor was a bit different in that it had only three flagship brands – Ford, Mercury and Lincoln – but the idea was the same. Capture the consumer at the very beginning … and stay with him or her for years thereafter. When I was growing up, I can recall friends who came from a GM family, a Ford family or a Chrysler family – such was affinity and loyalty people felt for “their” car companies.

Fast-forward to today, and the picture is completely scrambled. Not only has the prestige – and market share – of the U.S. car companies plummeted in the face of strong competition from foreign-based car rivals, but the brand offerings of the Big Three [sic] have been telescoped severely.

GM is now down to three flagship car brands (Chevy, Buick and Cadillac), while Ford and Chrysler are down to two each (Ford and Lincoln … Chrysler and Dodge).

The rationale for the recent decisions to jettison brands was to gain better control over operating expenses. Moreover, the amount of true difference between some of the brands was modest at best. So the goal of the auto makers has been to retain the loyalty of buyers and shift them to the remaining brands, thereby controlling operating costs while keeping customers in the fold

How’s that working out for everyone?

Well … not exactly as planned. General Motors dropped Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer in the latest round of brand downsizing in 2009, but had hoped to keep most of the buyers of those vehicles in the GM family. Reportedly, there are ~3 million of these vehicles on the roads today. However, the Detroit News is reporting that a majority of these owners are opting for non-GM products when they’re in the market for a new vehicle – brands such as Honda, Nissan and Toyota.

In fact, statistics from auto research company J.D. Power & Associates show these sorry retention rates for GM during 2010:

 Hummer owners staying with GM: ~39%
 Pontiac owners staying with GM: ~36%
 Saturn owners staying with GM: ~26%

These figures compare to an industry-wide brand retention rate of ~48%.

The statistics on Saturn are probably the least surprising. After all, Saturn was promoted as “a new kind of car company” – presumably in stark contrast to other GM car brands as much as any rivals. It stands to reason that Saturn owners would probably find almost any other company preferable than staying with GM.

GM has certainly tried to keep its customers from straying – including offering special deals such as one-year free maintenance programs, discounts on new GM auto purchases, offers to test-drive GM cars, and special invitations and events to introduce customers to new GM dealers.

Some industry observers feel that GM miscalculated to a degree, in that the three brands dropped by the company had a measure of distinctness that is difficult to replicate in the remaining GM brands. J.D. Power’s Executive Director of U.S. Automotive Research, Steve Witten has noted, “The truth of the matter is they didn’t have many options for people to stay in the GM family. Now, there are holes.”

[It didn’t help either that some Saturn dealerships jumped the GM ship when the brand went away – taking many of their customers with them.]

What about Ford Motor’s experience in dropping the Mercury brand from its lineup? It turns out the news for them has been better. In fact, Ford has managed to hold on to ~46% of Mercury customers.

Ironically, the company has benefited from what might normally be considered a brand weakness: the Ford and Mercury lines had very little differentiation between them. Thus, it has proven easier to shift Mercury owners to Ford vehicles as an alternative.

Chrysler went through its auto brand downsizing a bit earlier … the Imperial nameplate disappeared back in the 1980s (I know: I owned one of the last models manufactured) … while the Plymouth brand bit the dust seven years prior to the 2009 economic near-meltdown.

Instead, the big news at Chrysler has been its shift from one foreign parent company (Germany’s Daimler-Benz) to another (Italy’s Fiat). For many, the jury may still be out on the long-term viability of Chrysler – the next two or three years will be the acid test.

Multimedia Centers: Migrating From the Family Room to the Garage

Automobile multimedia centersConverseon’s Craig Daitch, writing in Advertising Age magazine, is claiming that Ford Motor could be the next media company.

What does that mean?

It means this: Today, the most well-equipped media centers may well be the ones found in your car. What’s being featured in car showrooms are vehicles that contain everything from portals for laptops to smartphone-enabled screens … satellite-enabled geo-positioning systems … high-definition and/or satellite radio … even televisions.

The reality is, the home is no longer the exclusive domain of all of these collective media. The automobile is a multimedia hub as well, which means that any medium that was once reserved for in-home consumption can now be experienced in cars – on the go.

What are the implications for marketers? For one thing, merchants are now closer than ever to closing the gap between in-store and out-of-store marketing. Now, marketing messages can travel along with the target audience … right into the store parking lot. Messages reach their targets that much more effectively when cars are taking them directly to the point of purchase.

Sure, outdoor billboards and broadcast radio have played a role similar to this in the past, but never to the same degree as delivering an electronic coupon or alerting the consumer based on locational tracking.

Up to now, mobile media were limited to devices such as cellphones that could be unplugged and personally ported by users to different locations. Going forward, it’s the plugs that are mobile … and essentially any medium is now a mobile medium when it resides in a car.

It’s an intriguing twist that has vast implications on tactical marketing as we look to the future.