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The man who didn’t cause the world’s most infamous marketing disaster dies

March 8, 2013

edselsThe death late last month of Roy Brown Jr, aged 96, is a timely reminder of that old adage: success has many authors; failure but one scapegoat. The reality, as we shall see, is not uncommonly the inverse.

Brown was Ford’s top designer during the Fifties and it was his misfortune to be saddled with historical responsibility for one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time. The Ford Edsel was conceived in 1955, born in the 1958 model year and unceremoniously euthanised in late November 1959. In that time it had cost Ford a record $350m, the equivalent in today’s money of about $2.8tr.

Critics rounded on the controversial “horse collar” or “toilet-seat” chrome grille, in which some amateur psychologists even descried a vulva, as the car’s killer feature. Admittedly, over 50 years later, it’s hard to regard that grille as an aesthetic triumph – but, with hindsight, it’s surely no more than a fairly conventional attribute of the overblown fin-styled float-boats of the time. In any case, Brown was not ultimately responsible for the grille. His concept was a much more restrained vertical opening, perhaps à la Alfa; it was overruled by Ford engineers, who deemed it too narrow for radiator-cooling efficiency.

The wider truth about the Edsel – and the calamity that engulfed it – is that it was not just an automobile style, not just a car, but a range of cars, a new manufacturing division and, most disastrous misconception of all, a market segment that never existed.

In reviewing the consumer boom in 1950s America, Ford market “research” had concluded the car manufacturer was in need of more careful market segmentation. Its top end range – Lincoln and Mercury – was found to be competing – horror of horrors – with more downmarket marques such as Oldsmobile and Buick at General Motors. Solution: push Lincoln further upscale with the new Continental marque, which would compete more credibly with Cadillac. And introduce a new mid-market marque, the Edsel, which would slot in just below Mercury and just above Ford.

Simple, eh? Except Ford senior management then went on to commit a series of textbook marketing errors. The research was fatally flawed: by 1957 middle Americans were tightening their belts as a mini-recession beckoned. If anything, they were looking downmarket, at more value for money. Speaking of which, Ford then committed error number two, it got greedy with its pricing. The new segment competed nearly head on with Mercury, undermining the latter’s perceived value. At the same time, the bottom end of the Edsel range overlapped Ford’s better-equipped and better-value-for-money Fairlane 500.

Error number three was the name. No one had a clue what it should be, so the task was delegated to Edsel’s agency, Foote Cone & Belding – which duly obliged with no less than 6,000 paralysing suggestions, none of which quite did the business. True, four of them – Citation, Corsair, Pacer and Ranger – ended up as model names. But that still left the awkward issue of the umbrella brand unresolved. What then happened almost beggars belief. While Ford chairman Henry Ford II – a known sceptic of the whole brand segmentation idea – was abroad, the board took it upon themselves to name the marque after his father, the oddly-named Edsel – in honour of the Ford family. An unintentional hostage to fortune if ever there was one.

All things considered, the Edsel actually had a reasonable launch. It undershot expectations, but still managed to be one of the biggest model launches to date. From there on in, however, it was rapidly downhill. As the recession bit and sales stalled, the vultures began to circle. Some actually thought the styling and layout of the vehicle (which shared a platform with other Ford marques) was too conventional (!). Others criticised the range for coming up with innovations, such as the Teletouch automatic transmission selector, which were too complex for the consumer of the time. And certainly there were reliability and after-market problems.

robert_mcnamaraGetting the picture? Biffed on all sides, sales tanking; enter Robert McNamara – Hank the Deuce’s axeman. Better known to history as the man who, as Secretary of Defense, thought up the “body-count” as a means of conjuring defeat in Vietnam into victory, in the late Fifties McNamara (left) was a whizz kid consultant at Ford, who shared his chairman’s deeply-held conviction (or was that prejudice?) that Ford was over segmented, and would do well to get back to core brand values. It was death for the new but massively underperforming marque by several strategic cuts – cuts in the marketing and advertising budget; cuts in the production budget and cuts in the management overheads. The separate Edsel division was soon dissolved, but the Edsel itself limped on for a while as rebadged, retrimmed and overpriced Ford models in all but name.

And Roy Brown, the man who got blamed for it in the popular imagination? He lived to fight another day, as chief designer of Ford’s first world-car, the Cortina. Not only that, he kept faith with the Edsel, an immaculate example of which he continued to drive until his dying days.

For Brown’s estate, at any rate, the Edsel will have proved a good investment. Showroom-condition models now achieve prices in excess of $100,000.

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Carat in line to scoop $3bn General Motors global media account

December 7, 2011

A strong rumour suggests Carat has scooped the $3bn General Motors global media buying and planning account, which has been under review since August.

If true, this outcome amounts to a huge blow for Publicis Groupe, which services the majority of the account through its media specialist Starcom MediaVest, and – by the same token – a big fillip for Aegis, owner of Carat, the publicly listed company steered by Jerry Buhlmann.

The review, one of the biggest of its kind in the world, was instigated by GM marketing supremo Joel Ewanick as part of a slew of measures designed to tighten up the automobile giant’s worldwide marketing performance.

Before the review, GM used up to 20 media specialists. However, the bulk of the spend – two-thirds in fact – is committed to North America (the Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac marques), and much of that has passed through Starcom since 2005. Carat, which has been on the GM roster for a slightly shorter period but consolidated its hold during a 2010 review, handles the $500m European business (Opel and Vauxhall). Interpublic’s Universal McCann was responsible for much of the Latin American business.

Although the review was slated as “global”, it did not in fact include GM’s operations in nascent markets India and China. What it did include, according to the briefing notes, was “digital…, SEO and social media.”

If Ewanick has stuck to his word and included these in the consolidated Carat package, his decision will represent a double-whammy for Publicis. Back in the summer, PG boss Maurice Lévy sought to shore up his position in the increasingly important GM digital account by taking a 51% stake in Big Fuel, which holds the North American social media account. The acquisition was aligned under the Vivaki digital unit.

What we don’t know, of course, is how profitable the account will be for Aegis. In their desperation to win an account, media men often allow their competitive negotiating instinct to overcome more rational arithmetical considerations, and pare the margins down to the bone in an all-out attempt to win. That said, a win will do Aegis’ share price no harm at all. And, being on a roll, Buhlmann can expect more clients to put him and his team at the top of their shortlists.

 


Why Joel Ewanick’s Apple comparison is just pie in the sky for General Motors

August 24, 2011

“Feisty” is the word that most often comes to mind when describing General Motors global chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick.

Since arriving from Hyundai (where he held a similar position) last year, the man seems to have barely slept as he implements a whirlwind catalogue of changes. This month alone, while others absent themselves on their summer vacation, Ewanick has reorganised his marketing department and called a review of the $3bn GM global media account.

But restless energy – commendable though it is – should not be mistaken for vision. The limits of Ewanick’s intellectual rigour, although not his soaring ambition, were also on display earlier this month – at GM’s second annual Global Business Conference.

In it, Ewanick made the extraordinary declaration that his goal is to transform GM not into a better car company, but a future Apple.

Nor was this just a rhetorical trope dished out to a friendly audience. He’s deadly serious. “It’s time,” Ewanick said, “To clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like Apple. It’s time for an automotive company to step out and address consumers and their needs in a way that’s never been done before.”

Admirable sentiments of course. But just what does he mean? Technological innovation is integral  to selling cars, but that doesn’t mean the motor sector is in any way comparable to Silicon Valley. And even if it were, rust-belt Motown marques, with their high social costs and Chapter 11 legacy, are not where you would start. Ironically, in fact, the US car brand with the most potential for eye-catching product innovation and design is not American at all: it’s one whose marketing Ewanick has already captained – Hyundai.

But if the future is elsewhere, Ewanick has, in a curious way, scored a debating point about the past. GM is comparable with Apple: but only in the past tense. Back in the fifties, when Americana and US global power were at their height, a new Chevvie or Cadillac was a potent symbol of the consumer dream. It encapsulated the freedom to travel anytime, anywhere worth travelling to, on the interstate highway. So potent was this dream that GM – like Apple today – was the world’s biggest company by market capitalisation. It even became a mantra in US foreign policy: “What’s good for GM is good for America.”

No chance of recapturing that distant eminence, now or in the future. Cars are simply not the must-have consumer products they once were; even in fast-growing economies like China’s – where they may well be viewed as status symbols, but not on the level of fifties America. Who, on the other hand, would not break their neck to acquire the latest Apple iPhone?

It’s possible, of course, that I have misunderstood Ewanick’s apparently ludicrous aspiration. All he was really talking about was the much more modest goal of creating brands with universally accepted global appeal. I don’t think so, though.

What’s certain is that neither Ewanick nor his boss, GM CEO Dan Akerson, is the next Steve Jobs – despite the superficial brand-turnaround comparison.


Buckle your safety belts: GM has put Joel Ewanick in the global driving seat

December 21, 2010

You’ll have to forgive me. Unlike former Porsche marketer Joel Ewanick, I don’t live in the fast-lane – meaning, I’ve just caught up with the news that he has been appointed to the new position of global chief marketing officer, General Motors.

Even by his standards, that was quick work. He only joined the organisation eight months ago as US vice president marketing, after a brief and apparently stormy sojourn at Nissan. But what an eight months that’s been. The relentless cutting-edge of the whirling dervish has left no department intact, no slogan unchallenged, no strategy unexamined, no agency relationship unmarked. Most notoriously, it will be recalled, he summarily despatched Publicis Worldwide only weeks after it had won the $700m Chevrolet account, and replaced it with (off-roster but on-message, so far as Ewanick is concerned) Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Then, judging perhaps that he had gratuitously made an enemy of one of the most powerful admen in the world, he placated Maurice Lévy by firing BBH from $270m Cadillac and giving the business to Fallon instead. I’m sure there were other reasons for this move: but it cannot be entirely coincidental that Fallon is wholly owned by Publicis Groupe, of which Lévy is the ceo, whereas BBH is only 49% owned by the same company. More money, then, into the main exchequer.

Any way, back to Ewanick. There are at least two, not entirely contradictory, ways of looking at his brand of marketing management; the success of his current appointment will depend on which is uppermost.

The first we have already seen: the change agent on steroids who will stop at nothing to become the world’s most famous car-marketer, in a vainglorious attempt to salvage the apparently unsalvageable: GM’s reputation.

The second is a man with an indisputable reputation for turning around troubled car marques. He did it at Porsche Cars North America during the nineties (no fly-by-nighter there – he stayed nearly nine years as general manager marketing); and he did it again during his 3-year stint as head of marketing at Hyundai North America. Hyundai is now – arguably – America’s most successful car brand.

In this new role we’re going to discover whether success has gone to Ewanick’s head or not. According to the man who appointed him, GM CEO Dan Akerson (himself a new kid on the managerial block), he “will ensure consistent global messaging fro all brands including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Holden, Opel and Vauxhall. Ewanick will provide oversight for global brand enhancements in the markets in which they are sold and work in association with the regional presidents in countries where GM has partnerships and joint ventures.”

The key regional bosses we are talking about here are the ones with dominion in Britain (Vauxhall), Australia (Holden) and Germany (Opel) – Ewanick already controls the rest. And the key issue is how much these brands desire, or even require, “consistent global messaging” – still less an American-centric version of it. Let’s not forget that these were the successful bits, devolved from GM’s incompetent Detroit management – the bits that didn’t have to go into Chapter 11 a while back. I wonder whether Ewanick has the forbearance to acknowledge that. Somehow, I can’t imagine tact is his number one quality.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting ride for GM’s European roster agencies. DLKW Lowe, McCann Erickson, Scholz & Friends and Amsterdam Worldwide, fasten your seat belts.


Why BBH had to let Steve Harty go

July 22, 2010

First it lost the $270m Cadillac account, then it resigned the foundation Levi’s business after no new campaign in nearly two years. Now we hear Steve Harty, eminence grise of its New York shop these past five years, is being let go. It looks, to surface appearances, as if BBH and its micro-network model, is in a downward spin.

None of this is good news, granted. But it’s not quite so grim as it first appears.

Commentators have been quick to place Joel Ewanick, GM’s maverick new marketing supremo, at the centre of events; and they’re not entirely wrong. The rabid Red Queen of marketing (“Off with their heads!”) – as he’s becoming known – certainly didn’t help matters when he pronounced the death sentence on BBH’s “Mark of Leadership” strapline. But easy come, easy go. BBH New York had only held the account for six months. The business wasn’t there long enough to qualify as a foundation client, like Unilever or Diageo.

The loss does, however, have a direct bearing on Mr Harty’s “future direction”.  Harty, previously the ceo of Merkley Newman Harty, was brought in about 5 years ago as chairman of the New York office, to lend an American accent to what was seen as too quintessentially British. Things had not been going that swimmingly under his predecessor Cindy Gallop – herself a British national of long-matured BBH London vintage. In the event, I’m not sure how well the Stars & Stripes card, of itself, worked in pulling new business; but of one thing we can be certain: Steve Harty came with a very high price tag.

Fast forward most of those five years to winter 2010. A senior management reshuffle at BBH New York left Harty looking vulnerable. Emma Cookson, the long-serving ceo who seems to have done much of the heavy lifting in the New York office, stepped up to Harty’s role while he himself became group chairman of North America, in charge of digital production, brand-creation operation Zag and new acquisitions. The reshuffle happened immediately after the Cadillac win; but just as importantly, in the wake of a new dictum from London HQ: that senior executives should spend more time servicing key clients. In Cookson’s case, the client was Cadillac. Which means, in theory, that she now has a lot more management time on her hands.

Subtract Cadillac, and Harty – nice guy though he evidently is – becomes the white elephant in the room. A luxury too expensive to maintain.


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