Ford's plan to equip many of its 2010 model year vehicles with teen-safety chips is a novel, smart branding idea.
First and foremost, it gives them something to talk about other than long and winding roads. 95% of automotive branding is identically inconsequential. This is something different, and it's something based on a demonstrably real attribute. Nobody needs to see another leggy model or ersatz family claim that we should buy a car because they're getting paid to say it.
It also acknowledges the obvious fact that technology is not neutral. Guns should have locks, cell phones text blockers, and cars for use by teenagers shouldn't go faster than the speed limit. Every technical innovation has a commensurate impact on society, and manufacturers of the former should design in tools or services to address the latter. Shrugging and saying that it's up to the consumer (or parent) to deal with a device is ugly corporate irresponsibility.
That said, the teen-safety chip is also a hint at what's possible, if not what's required, in order for the Ford brand to survive.
Quick...what's the difference between Ford, Chrysler, and GM? Yup. Nothing.
Three companies that each make a variety of vehicles, offering a variety of option combinations and price points. What's supposed to differentiate them are the models (styling) and then the branding woven around them.
Of course, it doesn't, as evidenced by the primacy of price as the motivator of consumer purchase.
Imagine if things were different, though. What if Ford decided that it would focus on a particular customer, in the way that a clothing designer (or smart retail store, for that matter) identifies its prime targets? Instead of trying to offer a wide variety of choices to a number of different customers, it created the best offer for a single customer demographic?
Imagine Ford as the first choice for families.
- It could build its brand differentiation into every aspect, every component of every vehicle
- It could focus styling to meet the needs of family drivers/users, and establish the industry benchmark for things like safety, performance and, yes, parental control
- It could make the case for why a Ford was the best and only choice for families...a large demographic...and build the services, from pricing to support (and repurchase) to meet the needs of those customers
Everything about the company could be different -- not just its ad campaigns -- and everything could be supportable and meaningful to consumers. I riffed on a similar idea for Chrysler a few weeks ago.
The company is going to have to change. It's not going to be as large, or as diverse as it once was. And it certainly is going to have to come up with a smarter, more effective way to market. Dumping millions after millions into unmemorable advertising, and hoping that it can thereby brand its vehicles, is a failed proposition in search of a better idea.
Ford innovated with the teen-safety chip. Maybe it'll do more?