DETROIT -- For General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group, the past year has been a nightmare of financial collapse and bankruptcy. But Ford Motor Co., despite losing billions of dollars, says the turmoil may be the key to its turnaround.
Many potential customers who had tuned out Ford are paying attention to the brand, marketing chief Jim Farley told Automotive News.
After years of stagnation, purchase consideration of Ford-brand vehicles by probable buyers, a key measurement for Ford, jumped 13 percent during the first six months of 2009.
People are responding to the wave of good publicity that has surrounded Ford as it shunned emergency government loans and stayed solvent.
"Ironically, the debate around the industry was the best thing that's happened to Ford," Farley said. "We're finally relevant in North America."
Ford still must repay $26.1 billion, much of it incurred in 2006 when it borrowed to keep out of bankruptcy.
With 15.2 percent of the U.S. market, Ford's domestic brands gained nearly a point of share during the first eight months of 2009, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
Farley asserts that without the industry controversy, many Americans would never have become aware of Ford's improved cars and trucks.
Ford's Web site traffic and incentive inquiries spiked as GM's and Chrysler's woes intensified. During that period, Ford had top executives telling the media that it was in a different situation. "It would have taken billions in advertising to do that," Farley said. "Just ask General Motors."
Third-party research supports Ford. A national study of 2.27 million online automotive shoppers by Compete Inc. in August showed 22 percent actively shopping Ford-brand vehicles -- equal to the Toyota brand. In August 2008, Ford's figure was 14 percent, the Boston research firm said.
"Ford has been on a tear in terms of demand," said Dennis Bulgarelli, director of the automotive practice for Compete.
Despite the improvement, Farley acknowledges that Ford still must improve its financial performance and image among consumers.
The company doesn't expect to make money until 2011. Market share is still 10 points below its 1990s peak of nearly 26 percent. Favorable opinion of its U.S. passenger cars "is not acceptable," Farley said.
In fact, he said, turning around consumer opinion of Ford products in general remains the company's biggest problem.