Ford's messenger for the millennials
Ken Block combines race-car driving and marketing in one tire-squealing, doughnut-spinning package
Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE
One sunny day last summer, star rally driver Ken Block donned his racing helmet, strapped into his 600-hp Ford Fiesta rally car and rocketed west from Oakland across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.
Driving on closed-off streets, he proceeded to burn up the pavement in a gravity-defying 21st-century reprise of the tire-squealing car chase in the movie Bullitt, in which Steve McQueen raced through the city in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT.
Video cameras followed Block's every hair-raising stunt from inside the car and out. Since Block posted it on YouTube July 9, more than 42 million people have viewed his "DC Shoes: Ken Block's Gymkhana Five: Ultimate Urban Playground; San Francisco" video featuring his tire-smoking doughnuts, extreme drifting and soaring jumps.
That number is music to the ears of Ford marketer Scott Denby. So is this one: More than 3.1 million people like Block on Facebook. That compares with more than 362,000 people who like NASCAR driver Danica Patrick on Facebook.
Changing Ford's image
The Ford brand these days offers a new generation of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles including the Fiesta, Focus and C-Max. But many customers hang onto a far different image of the company, seeing it as a maker of gas-guzzling pickups, SUVs and muscle cars. It's an image Ford wants to change.
Fiesta sales fell 17 percent in 2012, to 56,775, before rebounding 3 percent in the first two months of this year. With a refreshed 2014 Fiesta and performance Fiesta ST arriving in dealerships this spring, Ford wants to bring new energy to its smallest car.
"We needed somebody to help get more focus on small cars," says Denby, marketing and strategy manager for Ford Racing.
Jim Farley, executive vice president of global marketing, sales, service and Lincoln, has made Ford one of the most aggressive carmakers in using social media to reach new customers. The Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, Escape and C-Max were launched with social media campaigns. And Block is a celebrity tailor-made for the age of social media.
He keeps his Facebook page fresh and mentions his sponsors by name at every opportunity. Ford is Block's second-biggest sponsor, behind Monster Energy Drink.
Doughnuts in L.A.
Block appeared at Ford's Los Angeles Auto Show press conference, spinning doughnuts as Ford introduced the 2014 Fiesta. He followed that with an appearance at the Chicago Auto Show in February.
During press days at the Chicago show, Block was besieged by groups of 20-something fans wanting to get his autograph and to be photographed with him.
Says Denby: "We've seen a measurable, favorable lift for the brand among millennials, the next generation car buyer," since adding Block to Ford's marketing mix.
Market surveys show a 40 percent higher favorable awareness of Ford among car buyers who follow so-called action motor sports vs. buyers who don't, Denby says. "We view Ken as much being a race car driver as being a marketer. Ken's one of those unique individuals. He can do both incredibly successfully."
In person, Block is soft-spoken with an aw-shucks manner. In an interview, he says that he made the now-famous "DC Shoes: Ken Block's Gymkhana Five" video "just for fun" and was as shocked as anyone by its popularity.
"It blew up," Block says. "It's just amazing. I'm so happy."
Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE
'Slide and jump'
Block, 45, a native of Long Beach, Calif., says he grew up with an unconventional taste in motorsports for an American. He followed the World Rally Championship and drivers such as the late Colin McRae.
Says Block: "I was never as enamored with American motorsports," which tend to favor oval tracks and high speeds on the straightaways. "When I got my hands on my own set of keys, I wanted to slide and jump."
Block started his career as a rally driver in 2006. He also has done a form of stunt driving, called gymkhana, as well as snowboarding and skateboarding. He has participated in the X Games, a kind of alternate Olympics for extreme sports. Block was co-founder of DC Shoes, a company that makes shoes for action sports such as skateboarding.
He has appeared on "Octane Academy," a Ford-backed motorsports show that gives aspiring young drivers a chance to win an opportunity to train with Block or one of his co-drivers in Ford's stable: Brian Deegan, Tanner Foust and Vaughn Gittin Jr. The show, which promotes cars such as the Fiesta, Focus ST, F-150 SVT Raptor and Mustang, launches its second season on NBC Sports on June 17.
Says marketer Denby: "Ken brings us a completely new group of customers we've been able to engage with in a way we haven't been in the past. He's becoming one of the faces of the next generation of automotive enthusiasts -- these people who like smaller cars" such as the Fiesta and Focus.
Despite Ford's emphasis on drivers such as Block, the company also is sticking with its more traditional marketing outlets such as NASCAR and its pony car, the Mustang.
'A great opportunity'
"Mustang is something that has been and always will be," Denby says. But he adds, "This is a great opportunity to reach an import-centric consumer."
Block "really kind of defines the next generation of what it is to be a fan of motorsports. A lot of what he does you wouldn't define as traditional motorsports where there's a starting line and finishing line," Denby says. "He's bringing the fun back into the automobile industry."
You can reach Bradford Wernle at firstname.lastname@example.org.