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Ford "futurist" pays attention to everything but cars

Ford Motor Company

I recently interviewed Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Company's manager of Global Trends and Future.  Call her "futurist" for short.   Sheryl spoke with me about how she goes about "predicting" the future, and how it helps Ford develop and market its vehicles, and about Ford's latest report, "Looking Further With Ford: 13 Trends For 2013."

Q:  I want to talk with you first about your job.  What has Ford tasked you with doing?

A:  What most people don't realize is that it takes three years to bring a vehicle to market, so even if we come up with some sort of breakthrough or innovation today, it may not resonate or be relevant by the time the rubber hits the road.  And since we can't predict the future, what we do is track trends, in social, technological, economic, environmental and political arenas, because we think this will give us some insight into the forces that will shape consumers attitudes and behaviors.  It's never looking at automotive; in fact we try to stay away from that for the work that I do, so we come up with the insights, and then I pass it off to the designers, engineers and the marketing teams, that take their subject matter expertise and turn it into something meaningful in terms of product offerings.

Q:  So how do you track trends?  Are you constantly on Twitter or how do you do it?

A: Well, I've been doing it for nine years, so it's gotten a little easier over time, but it's really about pattern recognition -- looking for recurring themes, and seeing things that re-emerge and starting to have an eye for something, what are the drivers behind this, why does this seem like it's going to be important, and will it have staying power?

I have this title of Futurist, and people think it sounds so exotic, and I have to explain, it means 95% of my time is spent reading.  And I read anything and everything.  Now, the things that I read when I first started out are quite different from the things that I read today.  It's a little bit easier for me to spot trends.  But I have an informal database of over 200 trends, and I go, well that's an example of information addiction, or information overload.  And I just start to save those, and keep those running.  But I enjoy reading things like the New York Times, the Guardian, the Economist, Wired magazine has really interesting examples.  But I also like long-form books. I'm particularly fond of the inspiration I get from the TED conferences, which feature technology, entertainment, and design, showcasing thought leadership from around the world.  You just never know.  So I just read anything that crosses my desk.

Q:  You've got a great job, don't you think?

A:  I do, I do, I consider myself quite fortunate to have it.

Q: So what are the trends you've been noticing?  In the (Ford) press release, I see it has this cute little headline, "Trust is the new black."

A:  Trust is the new black, yes, that's kind of an ironic title, because it's really talking about how scarce trust has become in the marketplace.  We're approaching the fiscal cliff, we're still dealing with the aftermath of the global recession, and on a regular basis we run across headlines for government, media and business scandals.  And so the days of blind faith in institutions are long gone.  But consumers are finding that they can trust in themselves.  They can trust in their peers and the power of collective movements.  So if they're going to trust, they're going to trust in something that they know directly or personally.  And those brands that can establish a sense of trust in the marketplace will have an extraordinary advantage, because trust has become such a rare commodity.

Q:  Well, let me ask you about that.  Because it seems to relate to marketing to me, and there's a marketing opportunity, and also a risk there.  For example, if people read a headline that Ford is selling a vehicle, and the miles per gallon isn't quite what people thought it would be, that would, I suspect, erode trust.   How does a car company deal with that?

A:   So what happens is, it's about consistency.  80% of people say they trust a brand less when it communicates inconsistent values.  So it's about transparency and consistency.  We have a trend that's adjacent to this that's called "Get Real."  And it basically says, people are willing to embrace imperfection.  They understand with the pace of innovation, the way that things speed along in terms of evolution is so rapid these days, that they don't always expect to be perfect when it comes out.  So it's not about how you fall.  It's about how you pick yourself up afterwards.    So there's actually reports that talk about customer loyalty being stronger for those people who have a problem that is fixed to their satisfaction, than those who never experienced a problem at all. 

Now, with the issue of the fuel economy, we like to say that driving patterns are as unique as fingerprints, and so the weight of the vehicle, the cargo, the manner in which you drive, where you drive, the conditions, all influence the fuel efficiency rating of the vehicle.  And so we're trying to find ways to give people ways to better replicate the conditions in which our testing was done and how we came about with our numbers.

Q:  So this "Trust is the new black," seems like a messaging, and a behavior kind of thing.  Is there a trend that might affect the kind of vehicle that you bring out in three years, or with technology in a vehicle?

A:  Well, with regard to trust, I think a really good illustration of it is, you look at what happened in 2007 and 2008, when the auto industry was on the brink of collapse.  And domestic manufacturers (GM and Chrysler) had to go to Congress and ask for a government bailout.  And Ford supported that bailout because it was vital to the industry as a whole.  But one of the things that happened is it made the industry front and center as a topic for American taxpayers, and they started to pay much closer attention.  One of the things that caught Ford by surprise when it opted not to take the bailout, was that consumers really responded to it in ways that we hadn't anticipated.  They said, "I really like that you didn't take the bailout, and I want to know more about your brand."  And fortunately our quality had never been better, we had just refreshed our portfolio, and it has been a really huge blessing for us, in terms of the increased share and our profitability and where we are today.  So I think that sort of transparency, people liked the values that we stood for, and said, "I want to get behind that."  But this isn't just for automotive.  The case study that we call out in the book comes from Patagonia, which did an advertisement showcasing one of their jackets, with a tagline that read, "Do not buy this jacket."  And it was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it really also tried to give a straightforward message, that you should only buy the things that you really need.  And that may not work for a lot of other brands, but for Patagonia, it fit right into how people perceive the brand.  And trust increased 350% for a big, important segment of their buying population. 

Q:  Let's touch on a couple other (trends) that might influence the kind of vehicle a customer might buy.

A:  The one that comes to mind is called, "Help me help myself."  And we live in an era of ubiquitous information, and what we have now is better information working its way towards us in the form of feedback loops to help us achieve our goals, to give us real feedback, real-time information, that can help us change the course of our behavior.  Think of companies like Mint.com, which help track personal finance, so you can keep better accountability, or Nike Fuel Band, which gives information about your activity levels.  so that type of information helps navigate how we, the decisions that we make, and the course of actions that we take.  When it comes to automobiles, if you want to be in the green space, information about a hybrid vehicle in a smart gauge might change the way you drive a vehicle.  It tells you how much energy has been recaptured through your braking coach, it gives you a fun little gaming feature that shows leaves growing on a vine to encourage more green behavior.  But all of that information takes something that's intangible, and quantifies it.  I mean, it's like when you're on a treadmill.  You want to know how long you've gone,what distance, what speed, and how many calories you've burned, because it shows you that your efforts are paying off.  And that's what these tools are doing.

Q:  Well, I don't have much "trust" on the calories burned part - but that's because of what I've read!  The ubiquitous information that indicates that particular feedback (on elliptical machines) may  not be so accurate.

A:  I think, though, it's about measurements, right.  If you think about the experts in climate change talk about the reason the public has been slow to respond is because the threat is invisible, it's intangible.  And what these feedback loops are doing is taking these things that are otherwise abstract and turning it into something that's measurable.

Q:  Is there anything in your report that people might find a surprise that it's a trend?

A:  I think one that's really topical, is the economics of local pride.   I think people will hear it, and go, "oh, yeah, I just never thought about it that way. "  But with sensitivity about the economy, there's a growing awareness about giving back to your local community, so that if you enjoy the richness, the diversity, the culture that you have in your own neighborhood, and you want that to stay, the only way that's going to happen is by reinvesting.  And so there's more and more messaging about, for every dollar spent in your local community, 45 cents is reinvested locally.  As opposed to a national or non-local purchases, which reinvest at most 15 cents for every dollar.  So understanding how you spend, where you spend, really will come back to you full-fold on a personal level, is one of the things that we call out in this book.

Q:  How do you (Ford) take advantage of that, because you're a global company?

A:  Yes, but our face to the public is our local dealers, so we have several thousand dealers, retailers, that are second, third, even fourth-generation dealers.  I mean some of them go back to the days of Henry Ford.  They are the face of Ford Motor Company in the community.  And so without them, we wouldn't have the relationship (with the consumer).  And I think that's why Ford is still perceived as very much a family-owned business, because it happens at all levels, not just from the Ford family, but at your local Ford dealer.

Q:  Do you go to the Auto shows and look for trends there?

A  I do go to the auto shows, but I don't look for trends there.  Because I'm not an automotive expert.  So I don't get my insight from the automotive industry.  We have plenty of automotive expertise within the company.  My job is to highlight things that those experts might not otherwise run across on their day to day job.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.