DETROIT - Marketing the Ford Focus is all about generating buzz.
Ford Division wants to regularly entice young American drivers with attention-grabbing news about the new small car. The strategy involves more than a strong Internet presence or splashy advertising.
Ford will continuously update the Focus by launching customized limited-edition models every few months. This year, the company will build three to four Focus special-edition models in runs of about 7,000 units each.
'There will be constant rejuvenation of Focus to create continuous episodic buzz about the vehicle,' said Jim O'Connor, Ford Division president. 'We will keep constantly freshening this vehicle.'
Automakers have always tweaked interior and exterior trim to create special editions. But Ford is accelerating the pace of the Focus makeovers. The company also is eschewing longer-term, larger-volume custom editions, such as an Eddie Bauer version of the Ford Explorer. Instead, Ford is crafting limited-volume Focus vehicles offered for a short time that are designed to appeal to smaller groups of young people, such as bike enthusiasts or audiophiles.
For example, in March, Ford will begin selling a Sony Limited Edition Focus. The car will offer the new high-performance Sony Xplod car audio system, introduced by Sony Electronics in 1999. The system will have a distinctive red and black color scheme.
Similarly, in May, Ford begins selling the Ford Focus Kona edition, designed with bike manufacturer Kona Mountain. The limited edition includes a specially designed Kona Blast bike that Focus buyers pick up at Kona dealers to ensure proper fit.
'Ford is a broad brand and attracts a broad demographic,' said Brad Fox, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, Mich. 'By doing these special editions they send the signal that they understand younger people.
'It makes dealers happy because it brings traffic into the showroom,' Fox said. 'And from the customer's perspective, they are getting value. It is fairly innovative for the segment. Volkswagen has done it in the past, giving away a mountain bike or a snowboard with Jetta or Golf. And clearly VW has done a good job of connecting with younger buyers.'
The Focus has a broad mission at Ford Division. Company marketers want the Focus to counterbalance the division's prevailing image as a seller of trucks.
'This vehicle is very important in telling people that Ford is in the car business,' O'Connor said. 'They already know we are in the truck business.'
So far, the Focus is carrying its weight in the Ford lineup, O'Connor said.
Twenty-six percent of Focus buyers are under age 25, according to the company's early-buyer studies. No car in the industry has a higher percentage of buyers under age 25, said Anne Doyle, Ford Division spokeswoman.
'We are really connecting with a group we haven't been connecting with before,' O'Connor said. 'The Focus is attracting a much younger audience.'
In January, Ford increased the Focus assembly line speed at its Wayne, Mich., plant to 74 jobs an hour, up from 65. The company will build 35,000 more units in calendar 2000 than originally planned, O'Connor said.
Ford now holds 190,000 U.S. Focus orders. Critical markets such as California are generating 114 percent of their sales objective, Doyle said.
The Focus also is generating more revenue than its predecessor. The car is going out dealership doors with an average transaction price that is $2,000 higher than the Escort, O'Connor said. The Focus is selling without incentives.
In the United States, O'Connor wants the Focus to seriously challenge the Honda Civic, a task beyond the Escort.
'In many markets we are getting very, very close to outselling the Honda Civic,' O'Connor said. For example, in January, Ford Division's southwest region sold 98 Focuses for every 100 Civics sold, Doyle said. In contrast, the Escort generated about 50 sales for every 100 Civic sales in 1999, she said.
Ford sold 54,949 Focuses in November, December and January. Honda sold 64,437 Civics in the same period.
Three-door and wagon versions of the Focus are arriving at dealerships. Ford expects the sedans to represent 70 percent of Focus sales; the wagon and the three-door each will generate 15 percent of sales.