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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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Sir Shred’s threadbare win in the courts

March 13, 2011

On what spurious legal grounds has Sir Fred Goodwin persuaded some mentally bewildered British judge that he may no longer be referred to as a banker? We may not know, we may not even discuss: such is the all-encompassing gagging power of the superinjunction.

Some say that The News of the World was about to blow the gaffe on his private life. If so, I am greatly surprised that the former financial shredder has a private life worth dissecting, given his celebrated 24/7 dedication to work. I can only imagine that mere sight of the word “banker” attached to his name in the newspapers is enough to provoke a trauma so profound and inconsolable among other members of his family that it may be deemed an invasion of their privacy.

However, I digress. Little remarked so far is Sir Fred’s stupendous contribution to legal history. He is the first non-celebrity (excluding Trafigura, a corporate entity – albeit one of surprising sentience) to be granted such an injunction, which opens the floodgates to all sorts of hitherto unexplored avenues of advantage – some conceivably relevant to the marketing community.

Typically, a superinjunction comes about when a celeb of apparently unimpeachable public deportment (such as Tiger Woods) finds his or her reputation is about to be besmirched by irresponsible journalistic muckracking. The potentially ruinous effect of publication upon sponsorship earnings, combined with the anticipated hurt felt by the celeb’s family on reading the exposé, is often enough to persuade tender-minded judges – Mr Justice Eady prime among them – that the celeb’s inalienable Human Right to privacy is indeed being infringed.

Thanks to Sir Fred, the superinjunction contagion may now spread to all sorts of other commercial activity. Max Mosley could perhaps insist that the word “debauchery” be expunged from any description of his private activities over the past few years, for fear of damaging the reputation of Formula One. Likewise, F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone might exercise a veto over the word “Hitler”.

But these are mere legal foothills, considering the potential for indemnifying careers against all-time marketing disasters.

Imagine how useful a bit of UK juridical tourism might have been to the Ford family if the superinjunction had existed back in 1958, as the Edsel disaster began to shape up.

Robert Goizueta, former chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, could have discovered in the superinjunction a helpful antidote to being hurtfully described as “the author of New Coke.”

And Niall Fitzgerald might have been counting his superinjunction blessings in 1995, when he presided over the introduction of Persil Power. Instead of which, he had to engage in a long and painful public relations battle to rescue his company’s reputation (and his own).

Absurd extrapolation? Well, no more than not being able to call the architect of the RBS/ABN Amro deal a banker.

PS. Are we still allowed to refer to Fred as “Sir”? I understand he was knighted in 2004 for “services to banking”.


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