Toby Barlow, chief creative officer of the Team Detroit ad agency, has the job of telling the Ford brand story. Barlow and Team Detroit have relied heavily on customer testimonials. In the most recent campaign, called the EcoBoost Challenge, customers of other brands drive Ford vehicles on a track and then talk on camera about the virtues of the Ford products, including the EcoBoost engine.
Working with Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s executive vice president of global marketing, sales, service and Lincoln, the agency also has used digital marketing to raise awareness of new Ford models before they hit the showroom floor.
Barlow, 47, discussed Ford advertising with Staff Reporter Bradford Wernle.
Q: How did the EcoBoost Challenge come about?
A: We've had a pretty good track record telling our story through the experience of our customers because they're the best evangelists for the changes Ford has gone through. We did the Fusion Challenge, the Drive One testimonial campaign. Even today in some markets, people think of Ford as a car that other people drive.
So we had a great opportunity with EcoBoost to lean into its strengths and talk about getting more and paying less. It's turned out to be a smash hit of a campaign. The Nielsen numbers are very strong.
You're creating a brand.
We have four pillars: quality, green, safe and smart. We need to find ways to talk about them. We can talk about this across nameplates. In a lot of cases the vehicles are loved and the brand trails behind.
There has been a sea change in consumer attitudes toward Detroit carmakers since the recession. How do you take advantage of that?
A huge part of that came out of the design and the engineering and the technology they put into it. You have stories like the C-Max. For people who think of Ford as a truck and Mustang company, it has all this technology inside and really changes people's perceptions. Back in the day, the poor ad agencies were trying to celebrate vehicles that shouldn't have been celebrated. Now our job is much easier. The product and technology and design are all so much better.
Farley has said miles-per-gallon claims are becoming noise. How do you cut through that clutter and maintain Ford's credibility?
Unfortunately, the Hyundai scandal sort of tarnished everybody and damaged the trust people have in automotive brands altogether. We have the same ratings we've always had, which are EPA certified. If people have a problem with them they should talk to the federal government. We have great facts. In every category [where] we go up against Toyota, we beat them in mpg. EPA mpg, that's a level playing field. If we're beating them on EPA mpg, the same people are testing their vehicles and our vehicles. As long as we have these facts we're going to be singing them to the stars.
Ford is a global brand. Is that an advantage or disadvantage?
In the past, it was a mixed blessing. When I'd bring in [ad] designers, it was a contest to see how small they could make the logo on the page. But now they're bringing it in and it's big. Designers sense this is now a brand you can be proud of. It has gone 180 degrees.
This is a company that's had more than its fair share of ups and down. The fact that it's surging now lies in some remarkable way in its DNA. It's weird like that. I'm not used to being this proud of the brands I work on.
Farley has been a big advocate of the prelaunch campaign. Programs such as Escape Routes and Random Acts of Fusion have become major components in Ford launches. What have you learned from those?
I think the No. 1 thing we learned is that they work and they've completely changed the historic launch-and-leave formula that ruled automotive advertising for so many years. You'd wait until the dealer got the car, [then] spend as much money as quickly as possible. It was a crazy explosive way to have a big fireworks show and hope that carried you as long as possible.
Prelaunch gives us flexibility and allows us to draw out a story and give customers information about a vehicle before it's out.
How have relationships between Ford, Team Detroit and your dealer ad committees evolved in the Farley era?
What the dealers love about Jim Farley is he thinks about the customer first. From Day One that helped the relationship. Since the turnaround, their fortunes have improved, and they're a lot more confident in the leadership team. That makes meetings with dealers a lot more productive. I came into this job afraid of dealers, frankly.
There have been a lot of pleasant surprises. One of them is that the dealers work in true partnership with Ford's marketing. We don't need to do something loud and silly. We need to build the brand. To hear that coming out of dealers' mouths is refreshing. They've lived from it and profited from it.
Ford has been holding the line on incentives. What difference does it make, from a creative standpoint, when carmakers sell the product instead of the deal?
It's much easier to sell a great product than to sell an inferior one. If you sell an inferior one you've got to give people a reason to buy it, so you're slapping starbursts all over. Now we have the design and the technology and you just need to show that to people. So you're selling without screaming. It's given us freedom to have more fun and to be a lot more confident with the brand. One of the things that hurt Ford historically was the sense it was always on sale. When something is always on sale you wonder if it's any good. Now you've got beautiful vehicles and they're good. That makes people appreciate the brand in a way they haven't for years.
There's a new generation of customers who have Eurocentric tastes. They watch English Premier League soccer instead of the NFL and follow Formula 1 racing or World Rally Car instead of NASCAR. How do you appeal to this new audience?
There's a huge opportunity in that for Ford. Customers in those coastal markets who have been historically most apathetic toward Ford -- they identify with what's trendy in Paris and London. If we can tell the people in San Francisco that the people in Paris love it, it won't be such a dowdy Midwestern brand any more.