Countdown to launch
Photo credit: MICHAEL BECKER
During a tense mid-May meeting a month before Ford's prelaunch campaign for the redesigned 2013 Fusion is supposed to start, a team member blurts out his frustration.
"This has to launch," he says. "Something's got to give."
Pressures always run high as a campaign for a top-selling vehicle nears kickoff. But the Fusion team faces an alarming problem: It still hasn't signed A-list talent for the alternate-reality game it had planned to start in June.
The stakes are enormous. The Fusion launch will be, in the words of global marketing chief Jim Farley, "the mack daddy" for Ford this year. But the program already has been delayed once -- and now the company's latest and biggest social media experiment seems to be slipping again.
Can the many loose ends get tied up in a month? Will Ford's enormous gamble -- using cutting-edge social media tactics for a bread-and-butter mid-sized car that's in the sweet spot of the American market -- pay off?
This is the story of how Ford's Random Acts of Fusion campaign happened, told in snapshots of key moments. Automotive News was granted inside access to the Fusion launch team for this report.
VanDyke: Move the whole launch to social media?
August 2011: VanDyke's goal: Be 'the cool choice'
It's 13 months before Ford will start building the new version of its top-selling U.S. car, and Matt VanDyke is looking to blow up the traditional model for launching a vehicle.
Ford sees its redesigned Fusion as a breakthrough vehicle, capable of scoring higher sales and higher prices -- capable of elevating the entire Ford brand. Marketing executives are determined that this will not be a run-of-the-mill launch.
It's the kind of pressure that a marketing exec craves: crafting an extraordinary debut for an extraordinary car. If it works, you're golden. If not ... well, that's not an option.
In a recent memo to Fusion marketers, VanDyke, director of U.S. marketing communications for the Ford and Lincoln brands, has told his troops to "speed our trajectory from the defensible choice to the smart choice to the cool choice."
Interestingly, VanDyke's memo ignored the two traditional powers in the mid-sized car segment, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. "Behave more like we are competing w/VW," he wrote.
What's more, VanDyke raised the option of moving the entire launch to social media, where Ford already has pulled off several audacious moves. In the best-known one, the Fiesta Movement, Ford put 100 Fiestas in the hands of bloggers before the car's 2010 launch. Great buzz, low cost -- at a crucial time when the company's marketing budget was on the ropes.
Ford followed that by launching the 2011 Explorer on Facebook. And this spring it placed "Escape Routes," a six-week TV series with teams competing to win cash and new Ford Escapes, on NBC.
Now VanDyke, who jumped to Ford from Lexus' advertising agency in 2008, is urging his team to push further.
"If Fiesta Movement weren't just prelaunch but was the whole launch, what would that have been?" he wrote. Perhaps, he says, the Fusion "would be the first genuine large scale launch designed and executed entirely from social media platform."
VanDyke's openness to radical tactics reflects the growing importance of prelaunch marketing: building a core group of fervent fans before a product hits the market. Because costs are low, the new vehicle ideally hits the ground running with only a minor dent in the traditional launch advertising budget. You don't have to tell people who you are on high-priced TV time; they already know. When it works, it can create that sense of belonging that elite brands have and other brands covet.
But execution, as Ford's team would find, can be challenging.
December 21, 2011: Kick it like Batman
In a Ford meeting room in Dearborn, Mich., with walls covered by graphics from current and future marketing campaigns, VanDyke talks about his plans for the Fusion. He cites a case history that might surprise people not in the marketing business. The all-time model prelaunch campaign? The effort mounted for the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight.
In that campaign, a Pasadena, Calif., agency, 42 Entertainment, mounted a groundbreaking viral campaign among Batman fanatics. The campaign -- called "Why So Serious?" -- started at the 2007 Comic-Con convention, sending fans on scavenger hunts and to Web sites and letting them participate in a virtual election in Batman's fictional home, Gotham City.
That prompted Ford to hire 42 Entertainment to create a Fusion prelaunch game. But Fusion marketers know that it will be tricky to emulate the Batman model. It's easier to build excitement for a movie or a smartphone or a video game than for a mid-sized car. The average Fusion buyer, after all, is 55. And the price is $25,000, not $49.99.
Some Ford vehicles, such as the Mustang and the F-150, inspire fervent loyalty. Before auto marketers dreamed of online communities and alternate-reality games, a new Mustang generated anticipatory buzz. The mid-sized segment, though, is more about practical cars for grown-ups. The Camry sets the tone.
But what the segment lacks in sizzle it makes up in clout. It's the biggest U.S. car segment, accounting for 3,302,946 units, or about 26 percent of total industry sales, last year. And for all of its plain-vanilla persona, the Camry has been the best-selling U.S. car for 10 years. It may be beige, but it rakes in lots of green.
The segment is so big that the metrics for success are outsize, too. What might be seen as a triumph in another segment isn't enough here. One example is the Focus Rally, last year's Ford social media marketing campaign.
It consisted of a cross-country road rally by six teams driving the redesigned Focus. Viewers watched online and helped coach the teams. It drew "maybe 1 million people," VanDyke says -- and that's nowhere near enough for the Fusion prelaunch. VanDyke says his boss, Farley, has an eye-popping criterion: "Will 10 million people watch it?"
A key part of hitting a number that big will be fitting a social media campaign to the Fusion demographic. Fiesta buyers are younger people who live a good portion of their lives online. Buyers of mid-sized cars are a different group, VanDyke says: "We won't have as many people who are dialed into streaming TV or watching it on Hulu."
Viral is the goal
The Fusion social media plan is still just in outline form in December. VanDyke's team took several ideas to Farley in October, narrowed the list to two and finally chose one. "Now it's all execution," he says.
VanDyke says the prelaunch campaign initially will look like the Fiesta Movement, with Ford seemingly prepared to loan 100 Fusions to consumers for lengthy test drives. But that will be a "misdirection," setting off a game to get ahold of a Fusion.
Details are still murky, but here's the general idea: A celebrity will introduce an online contest in which people will have a shot at prizes, including the use of a preproduction Fusion for some sort of adventure. The contest will generate YouTube videos, back-and-forth on the Internet and, Ford hopes, a lot of content that's cool enough that people pass it along to their Internet friends.
Viral is the goal: Getting people to push the campaign's content along to others is a lot cheaper and hipper than doing it yourself through costly TV commercials.
Ford will step into riskier territory than it did with the Fiesta. The company will watch the public response to the first stage -- the game that 42 Entertainment will create, VanDyke says. Then it will improvise. For instance, consumers might favor a certain type of event or respond to a specific Fusion feature.
"Depending on what they do, you have to change it up and react differently," he says.
This is not how big-bucks launch campaigns usually work at Ford or in corporate America in general. Typically, the whole playbook from auto show introduction -- at Detroit in January -- until the marketing launch in the fall would be set out in exhaustive detail by now.
Not this time.
"I'm sure that, as a company, we're going to be pushed," VanDyke says. "Jim gets it, obviously, and there's general understanding, but until you do it, do you ask for forgiveness or permission?"
VanDyke says he is comfortable with the plan so far. And the team is energized.
"It's fun. It's exciting," he says. "But there's also ... there's some nerves."
Hoyt: Ford’s use of social media is exploding.
January 10, 2012: 2 big hurdles: Get new Fusions, sell old ones
Samantha Hoyt sits in an interview room on the second level of Ford's stand at the Detroit auto show, a quiet refuge in the midst of the show's frenzied press days. Below, on the show floor, hordes of journalists scurry to interviews and press conferences, and the pounding disco music peculiar to auto shows reverberates.
A day earlier Ford won lavish praise for the debut of the stylish new Fusion. The obvious challenge is to keep that excitement percolating for the next eight months, until retail sales start.
Hoyt, the Fusion marketing manager, looks at the prelaunch campaign with 20 years of marketing experience, much of it hashing out practical problems with dealers. And she ticks off two big differences that will make the Fusion campaign more challenging than Ford's Fiesta Movement.
1. The Fiesta was already being produced in Europe. Ford marketers could easily get roadworthy European cars for the Fiesta Movement.
That's not true with the next-generation Fusion, Hoyt says: "We don't have cars to pull from Europe for people to drive."
For several months, Ford will build only prototypes, early cars for testing that won't be retail quality. "When you're talking prelaunch, these are all cars that you would not generally give to the public to drive because they're still prototypes," Hoyt says.
2. The subcompact Fiesta went into an unoccupied segment for Ford in the United States -- white space. But the 2013 Fusion replaces its own prior generation. That requires prelaunch marketers to excite consumers about the new Fusion without killing sales of the current model.
Hoyt says social media activity will begin in April or May. In the past three years, she says, Ford's use of social media has exploded. But assessing results remains more art than science.
For serious online car-shopping, an automaker can track a consumer's level of involvement. How many visits to a shopping site? Did the consumer configure and price a car? Search dealer inventory? Set up an appointment? And, finally, did the shopper buy a car?
But the prelaunch social media are less deal-oriented. If Ford posts a video, its team may know the gross number of YouTube views. But it knows relatively little beyond that, compared to the reams of marketing data normally available to automotive marketers.
"How are we going to measure it?" Hoyt says. "That's the other thing because we at Ford are all about measuring stuff."
Still, she adds, the gross numbers for digital media can be staggering. In 2002, an online promotion showed the stars of the James Bond movie Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry, driving Jaguars and Aston Martins, brands that Ford then owned. The promo racked up a billion impressions.
"It was 1 billion impressions, and most of it positive, at a time when we really needed positive press," Hoyt says. "How much is a billion impressions of Ford worth to you?"
February 1, 2012: This will be 'our learning lab'
A few weeks after the Detroit show, Ford's prelaunch team narrows its focus.
The decision to use a concept similar to the Fiesta Movement stems from a belief that the new Fusion will generate positive buzz, says Thomais Zaremba, Ford and Lincoln digital marketing manager.
"We're confident that if you put it in the consumers' hands, you've created an evangelist," Zaremba says.
Ford has settled on a name: Random Acts of Fusion. As Hoyt predicted, marketers are working to get a commitment from product development that 100 retail-quality Fusions will be available. "I think we're halfway there," she says.
And the team is looking for a celebrity to lead the game-playing.
The celebrity signing will prove problematic as the months roll by. But in early February, Zaremba is concerned mostly with finding someone who's a good fit with the brand. Ford at this point is considering 10 possible entertainers.
It's a delicate choice. One popular comedian, she says, is undeniably cutting edge -- but prone to the kind of ad-libs that can make for bad press. Not a good fit with Ford, she says.
Exactly how the Fusion prelaunch will work and how total spending will differ from an old-school, traditional media launch are unknowns. Social media campaigns can save money when they work, but Ford won't know until the game gets under way exactly how well this one is working.
"I really don't think we know the answer to that," Zaremba says. "I think this is really going to be our learning lab."
February 22, 2012: The missing celebrity
By late February, finding an entertainer to play along with the Random Acts game is looking like a problem.
Curt Jaksen, senior vice president of Team Detroit, Ford's advertising agency, is one part of a troika looking for a solution. Ford's marketing staff and 42 Entertainment are the other two players.
Team Detroit, the uber-Ford agency created from various WPP Group-owned units servicing Ford, has offices halfway between Ford's two executive hubs in Dearborn, the Glass House headquarters and Regent Court, about a mile north.
The Team Detroit offices are ad-world casual -- more denim than neckties, a coffee house, pool tables, interesting art scattered about. It looks like the kind of place where you'd plan a social media experiment.
By this point, the strategy for the prelaunch is being called "100 to 1" -- a bit of sleight of hand in which it will appear that Ford is repeating its Fiesta Movement tactic of letting 100 consumers test drive the cars. The Fusions will, by "mistake," be given to a single celebrity who will kick off online-game playing to hand out the cars.
But the concept is proving hard to sell to celebrities. The entertainers would have to be available for several months as the game plays out, not just show up for a few days of commercial shoots.
If you're a big star, you don't have long stretches of time when you're not working. If you do have long stretches between gigs -- well, maybe you're not the best choice.
And there's a confusion factor. For entertainers -- and even within the agency and Ford -- the uncharted game is slightly puzzling.
"We may get a reaction from the audience that actually takes the story in a new direction," Jaksen says. "What happens within this program, that's what's a little hard to get your head around."
Ford and Team Detroit chose 42 Entertainment after reviewing several agencies, Jaksen says. The two agencies will partner on the creative work, and 42 Entertainment will take the lead on the virtual game-playing.
By now Jaksen has become an intermediary between Ford and 42 Entertainment. Not only is he making sure that the creative ideas from 42 Entertainment will be executed well -- no simple task if the hoped-for massive consumer response materializes -- but he's translating the respective jargons of the Detroit automaker and the Pasadena gamesters.
That, Jaksen says, requires him to be "bilingual." Of 42 Entertainment, he adds: "Working in a totally entertainment culture as they do, they speak an entirely different language."
February 23, 2012: Captivating the 55s
By now, Scott Kelly, Ford's digital marketing manager, has concluded that tactics from Ford's earlier prelaunches won't work this time.
Ford probably won't revive Doug, the orange puppet it used for online videos before the Focus launch. Nor will it expect Fusion fans to blog about the vehicle as Fiesta Movement participants did.
The average age of Fusion buyers is 55, and, Kelly says, "We're probably going to find that they're not content creators."
Instead, Ford will approach the Fusion audience mainly as content consumers. That means Ford will have to put up amusing online material that viewers might pass along to friends or post on their Facebook pages. Ford will focus on "things that are low-barrier to do, that don't take a lot of time, with easy ways to pass them along."
Kelly is also puzzling out the mix of social media to use. Clearly, Facebook is the 900-pound gorilla in the realm. "Using Facebook is not a strategy," Kelly says. "Everyone's on Facebook. That's like 'Use TV.'"
Overall, he says, Ford wants to signal potential buyers that even though fresh versions of rivals such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima and Camry will be in showrooms first, the new Fusion is worth waiting for.
The challenge will be to spin out a steady stream of intriguing content throughout the summer. This is a different game than shooting traditional TV spots seen by passive viewers. In a social media prelaunch, the content has to stir viewers, first, to seek it out repeatedly, and second, to interact in some way -- "play along," as Kelly puts it.
"It forces us to make better content," he says. "We're trying to get you to click on it. It compels us to be more interesting."
Often, the result is less polished than the elaborately crafted TV commercials of the past. The need for quickness trumps the corporate urge to review content.
For instance, about half of the videos using Doug the Focus puppet were posted online without being previewed by management, he says.
"Sometimes the best video is the flip-cam video where they said just the right thing," Kelly says. "It's forced us and management to give up a lot of control."
Lee Jelenic: Watching the Fusion numbers in real time
March 22, 2012: Crunching data, keeping score
When he was a trader at financial house J.P. Morgan, Lee Jelenic kept an eye on the stock ticker as it flashed market changes.
"One reason I liked that job is that you had a score in real time," Jelenic recalls. "You knew how you were doing."
As Random Acts of Fusion rolls out, Jelenic will watch the numbers, also in real time.
With social media tracking tools, Ford will know where a consumer was online before watching a video and, more important, whether the video prompts a viewer to research the Fusion further online. Jelenic says Ford can develop a strong sense of overall consumer awareness of the vehicle.
Jelenic, Ford's U.S. car marketing communications manager, is immersed in data about the mid-sized car segment.
He unfolds a printout listing the top 10 reasons for purchase for each car in the segment. They vary significantly, giving a sense of the dozen or so simultaneous chess games that the Fusion team must play. For instance, Jelenic says, offering an all-wheel-drive version of the Fusion will counter a strong selling point for the Subaru Legacy.
For Random Acts, Jelenic has well-defined targets. In its effort to push the Fusion -- and by extension, the Ford brand -- upmarket, Ford is targeting a 9 percent increase in average transaction price. For the current Fusion, the average transaction price in June was $25,002, according to Edmunds.com.
To give the Fusion "mass premium" status, in the company's phrase, Ford is offering options such as adaptive cruise control and active parking assist. Getting consumers to pay for such technology requires the Random Acts team to pump up the favorable-opinion numbers.
"It's been demonstrated that favorable opinion is the key driver to willingness to pay," Jelenic says.
And favorable opinion needs to center around five points that buyers of mid-sized cars value: quality, value, design, fun-to-drive and fuel economy.
Ford also will categorize social media audience members by degree of participation:
Interested -- One to five interactions, plus visits to the Ford Web site.
Interacting -- Five to 15 interactions, following the story, voting.
Enthusiastic -- Fifteen-plus interactions.
Ideally, all this measurement will help convert the 10 million viewers that Farley wants into "hundreds of thousands" of enthusiastic Fusion shoppers, Jelenic says. If the numbers are right, Random Acts will produce robust showroom traffic at launch.
Susan Bonds: From engineer to social-media maven
March 22, 2012: The team: 'We've got to lock down the celebrities'
The prelaunch team gathers around a long table in a meeting room at Team Detroit's offices, and the pressure is evident.
Tim Galvin, an account executive at Team Detroit, tells a group of about 10 people that "we've got a lot to accomplish here in the next six weeks." That would put the campaign kickoff in early May -- a timetable that will be moved back twice.
Team members are briefed by Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, by speaker phone from Pasadena.
Bonds' resume bespeaks the new thinking -- and new credentials -- coming into new-media marketing. Armed with an engineering degree and an MBA, she worked at Lockheed as an engineer on advanced aircraft and at Walt Disney Imagineering creating theme-park rides. Then she migrated to video game maker Cyan Worlds, overseeing a 3-D version of the popular realMyst game, before joining 42 Entertainment.
Bonds tells the group that the prelaunch will aim to draw potential Fusion buyers into "immersive experiences." Consumers will describe how they might use the Fusion for "random acts" large and small in hopes of winning use of a car, Bonds says. The implicit message will be that, whatever your goals, "Fusion can take you to all of these." The campaign will be shaped by that interaction -- choosing consumers to send on adventures, good deeds and the like, then recording and posting the stories online.
There's a new plot twist: The first celebrity will be a social media klutz who gets another, hipper friend to create 100 Random Acts of Fusion. 42 Entertainment has zeroed in on two actors, one male and one female, and is approaching them.
When Bonds finishes, Galvin hones in on the pressing need: "We've got to lock down the celebrities pretty quick."
Bonds says she is optimistic that celebrities will be signed soon. 42 Entertainment is "doing a big push this week to either sign the top picks or determine their availability." The latter point is key: The celebrities will need to be available over five months, she says, to react to social media input.
Zaremba follows up: "Are we saying that we are going to have talent wrapped and signed this week?" Bonds replies that the agency is negotiating this week.
After some discussion of venues for "big events" -- Ford's long-term relationship with the National Football League might be useful, for instance -- the meeting breaks up. But the room remains abuzz with conversation among groups of two or three at the table.
April 4, 2012: Farley ups the pressure: 'It's the mack daddy'
Ford's always-wired marketing chief, Jim Farley, heads into an interview at the New York auto show when he spots two men eyeing the just-launched 2013 Lincoln MKZ. They like the LED taillights; Farley spends several minutes extolling the lights.
Then he jumps into a discussion of the Fusion prelaunch. It's immediately clear that Farley is pumping up the pressure on his team.
"In my career, doing this for more than 20 years, a Fusion launch only comes around once or so," he says. "It's a defining launch for our company."
Ford has been steadily building expertise in social media, he says, and now it has to raise its game: "Now we're on the fifth or sixth version of prelaunching cars, and it's the mack daddy."
Ford's best-known social media campaign, the Fiesta Movement, was born of desperation, he acknowledges. In 2009 -- coming off a year in which Ford lost $14.67 billion -- the company needed to cut marketing costs.
"We did this because we didn't think we had enough money to launch Fiesta," Farley recalls. "It was all out of necessity. Our back was against the wall."
Since then, Ford learned a lot about the cost-effectiveness of social media. That topic arouses an evangelical streak in Farley.
"I don't want to win awards," he says. "I don't want to be the fanciest advertiser. I just want to be the most efficient.
"That's not sexy in our world. The sexy marketing people are the ones with the biggest campaigns and the fanciest Super Bowl ads. That's not what turns me on, and that's not what turns our team on. What turns our team on is that we just launched a car for half the money that anyone else did."
The virtually free cost of posting content on social media has a powerful appeal. Auto marketers can shovel $50 million or more into a traditional launch for a major vehicle, while producing the content for free online postings costs a fraction of that. Ford won't disclose its Random Acts budget.
And in Farley's view, social media also circumvent some limitations of traditional marketing.
Farley repeats a common concern among Ford marketers: that their enormously expensive TV commercials are becoming less effective. Consumers use digital video recording to blitz through commercials. And Farley cites "two-screen" video consumption -- watching the tube with one eye while fiddling with a tablet, smartphone or laptop.
But when consumers willingly enter into social media, their interest is stronger. Pull rather than push.
Event marketing, too, is enhanced by social media, Farley says.
"We used to have owners' clubs, car meets -- that was great, but it's very hard to scale. And it's expensive," Farley says. "In social media, we can create an online car show tomorrow night. Costs us nothing."
Lower overall costs?
That's not to say it's easy. In the old model, a car company shot two or three TV spots and let them run for months. In the new approach, content demands are higher, as are the demands on celebrities. In Farley's words, talent will have to be "all in."
"It's a new muscle," he says. "This is really a new muscle, and it's cool."
When it works, Farley adds, an effective prelaunch means you don't need to carpet-bomb the market with TV spots at retail launch.
"Here's what we've learned: Spend a few shekels the year before," Farley says. "If you're smart enough, the scale will be big enough, you'll get two or three months of orders before you ever run a traditional ad.
"Then -- this is the cool part -- if you have two or three months of orders, you don't have all that pressure to run all that advertising immediately."
That means Ford could cut its overall ad spending for the Fusion. Or it might spread the campaign out over the next year, avoiding the industry's traditional "launch and abandon" pattern.
A record month
In the past, automakers delayed their marketing push until the retail launch for a reason. They wanted to avoid killing sales of the outgoing model -- the challenge that worried Hoyt.
But Farley says social media allow an automaker to finesse that problem. Ford can sell the old Fusion in mainstream media with monthly payment pitches. Simultaneously, it can stoke the interest of consumers who want the new one through social media.
"The people who want a deal on the old one are genetically different than the people who want the new one and are willing to pay extra for it," he says. "And the industry never understood that. Social media gives us the ability to get the early adopters because they want to self-select, they want to be there first."
Farley's comments came after Ford sold 28,562 Fusions in March in the United States -- a record month for the nameplate. He pointed that out to an old co-worker who questioned the wisdom of prelaunches.
"A Toyota guy came up to me -- my old company -- and said, 'This prelaunch stuff, it's madness. How can you sell the old one?'" Farley recounts. "I said, 'I don't know, but we just had our best month ever.'"
Citing the Fiesta Movement, Farley says social media excel at creating the favorable opinion that Ford needs to move the Fusion upmarket.
"The unaided awareness for the Fiesta when we started a year before was less than 5 percent of the people who had even heard of a Fiesta. By the time we were launching, it was up to 60 percent," he says. "That normally takes you between $50 and $100 million of TV commercials in our industry. And we spent a couple million dollars."
Then Farley has to leave. He has "a date with Facebook."
May 16, 2012: Delaying the start, rethinking the strategy
By mid-May, Ford has pushed back the start date for Random Acts. The team is rebooting its plan for celebrities.
Crystal Worthem, Ford manager of brand content and alliances, says the big ask -- that a hot entertainer find time to stay engaged over several months -- is just too big.
Celebrities Ford has approached aren't ready to go, in Farley's words, "all in." For TV series actors, in particular, the summer break is a key time to take on other work.
"We've shifted our strategy," Worthem says. "We were requesting a lot more than three days of their time. It's very hard in the downtime of summer because they have a variety of projects going on."
Now, instead of looking for acting chops, Ford wants entertainers with their own media platform, such as a daily TV show, presumably so they could plug Random Acts. Meanwhile, the kickoff has been moved back to June or July.
In the same conversation, Jelenic says that will allow sufficient time to hit the awareness goals for the Fusion. Worthem says the "100 to 1" theme is being tweaked as well. Ford won't give Fusions to 100 people exclusively for three months. Instead, Ford will move the cars around, giving multiple people a car for shorter periods.
Getting the cars remains a challenge, she says. Marketers are still working with product development to secure 100 cars in retail-quality shape.
May 17, 2012: 'We have to decide today'
The next day the Fusion team is back in a meeting room at Team Detroit for a tense working lunch -- pizza, salad, cookies -- and a familiar focus on the aching need to sign talent.
The rescheduled prelaunch date is getting closer, and everyone in the room is hyper-aware of it. Jaksen tells the assembled group that preliminary work on the logo, the look and the key selling points is done.
But, he says, talent needs to be signed soon to hit the mid-June kickoff target. One option is to promote the social media game-playing with ads during the National Basketball Association playoff finals. They start on June 12 -- only 26 days away.
42 Entertainment's Bonds and Alex Lieu, the agency's chief creative officer, have flown in for the session. Lieu says the right tone is important for Random Acts. The talent and the online videos shouldn't feel "spokesman-y."
But, he says, getting extended time commitments from talent is still a problem.
"I'm concerned because this has to launch," Lieu says. "Something's got to give."
A review of celebrity options ensues, with reality settling in. One popular cable talk-show host's fee is way over budget, Lieu says, "not by hundreds of thousands, but by millions. It's double the budget."
He shows celebrity options on a video monitor. The team looks at what, in effect, is the new resume of the digital age. It lists the entertainer's name and age, followed by:
Starmeter rating on Internet Movie Database, imdb.com, a measure of how much attention the entertainer generates on the site
YouTube becomes a key screening tool at the meeting. The group checks out a video from Joel McHale, star of the NBC sitcom "Community" and host of "The Soup" celebrity news report on E! Entertainment Television. Kate Micucci, a supporting actor on the Fox sitcom "Raising Hope," wins points for a funny appearance on "The Conan O'Brien Show," also viewed on YouTube. Ryan Seacrest, host of "American Idol" and a budding media magnate, surfaces as a possibility.
The bottom line, Bonds tells the group: "We have to decide today."
June 21, 2012: The celebs are booked. The cars ... sort of
Nearly 10 months after his initial memo, VanDyke has the Fusion prelaunch program nearly ready. Key talent has been signed: Seacrest, McHale and Micucci will kick off Random Acts of Fusion in July.
VanDyke and Worthem acknowledge that finding the right celebs was tough, given the commitment Ford wanted. They worked around that problem by hiring a third entertainer: Micucci will hang in with Random Acts, doing public appearances around the country. Seacrest and McHale will mainly appear in online videos.
Was the reliance on big-name entertainers a mistake -- a relic of traditional ad-think? VanDyke bridles slightly at the question. He is adamant that celebrity power was necessary. Farley's challenge to engage 10 million people stands.
"We don't want this to be quiet," VanDyke says. "That's why we choose to do it with people like Ryan Seacrest and Joel McHale, who have scale, people who will attract an audience of interest who will say, 'Hey, what's going on here?'"
Seacrest's wide-ranging media activities, including a national radio show, will amplify Ford's message, Worthem says. McHale, meanwhile, regularly makes ironic jibes at Seacrest on "The Soup." The two play off that frenemy shtick during the first day of video shooting, teasing Twitter followers with a photo of them together, and VanDyke is delighted.
"That wasn't in their contract," he says. "When they start building on their own ideas, it shows that you picked the right partners."
Random Acts will wind up with charitable events at dealerships sometime in October, Worthem says.
The delay wasn't only in finding media talent, VanDyke adds. There is one lingering problem: Ford will have 100 preproduction Fusions by the time the program is fully rolling on July 10, VanDyke says. But it may start with fewer.
"What we have is a little bit of a challenge on exactly 100 on Day 1," he says. "We have about 40. There's a little bit of creative behind the scenes. We will make it feel like 100 at the beginning. We will have 100 by the end."
Soon afterward, consumers will start getting cars for their "random acts," stretching over varying amounts of time.
Then, when video of their adventures is posted -- if all goes according to plan -- that will generate more interest, more site visits and more public awareness of the Fusion's features.
The key numbers, VanDyke says, are the Fusion's favorable opinion ratings. Ford will measure those by online surveys. The team also will watch configure-and-price behavior on the Web. Along with overall reach, those can be measured.
"Many of the things that are hard to assign value to -- likes, tweets, retweets, and things like that -- the debate that we and many others have is to put a value on that," he says. "But overall, what we're looking for is reach. We're looking to reach millions of people. We have specific targets on that."
The team won't know until late summer, after tracking favorable opinion and other numbers, whether the campaign will allow Ford to ease traditional media launch spending, VanDyke cautions.
"One of the things you never want to do is compromise a fast start for such an important mass-volume launch product," he says. "You want to make sure you're getting that.
"But when you're 30 days out, you have a good sense with your dealers of how much prelaunch interest and demand is."
June 26, 2012: The game begins
Five days later, Random Acts rolls out with an online tease featuring Seacrest on the Fusion Facebook page.
That is followed by a TV commercial that surfaces July 10 during the Major League Baseball All-Star game.
The ad pushes consumers to a Web site, RandomActsofFusion.com, that bubbles with interactive lures. Consumers can audition to use a Fusion for a "random act," nominate their hometown for a Fusion event or try to win a spa getaway, among other things. The videos are on Facebook, too -- and within a week the number of views is poking into five figures -- the beginning, Ford hopes, of a good-sized marketing virus.
And here's what's striking: The angst involved in wrenching this new idea into reality doesn't show.
The videos with Seacrest and McHale as a bantering odd couple are professional and witty. Ford is exercising its vast marketing reach, pulling Fusions up to local coffee shops to let consumers who have connected online check out the cars, and preparing to send consumers on bigger adventures. It all winds up looking very put-together.
Will it give the Fusion an edge in a hotly competitive segment? Will it save Ford some serious marketing money, or will an emergency infusion of big-bucks TV ad money be needed when Fusion production starts? Those answers will begin to emerge late this year.
But for now, the game is on. Once again, Ford is flexing its "new muscle."
You can reach Dave Guilford at email@example.com. -- Follow Dave on