Ford 'Discovers' New Research Technique!
by George Peterson, President of AutoPacific, Inc.

Ford Motor Company has been a leader in traditional automotive research for decades. They dedicated tremendous resources to getting the research right. They were rigid and methodologically pure. But their methods in the past did not always yield winners. The Edsel was the most thoroughly researched car of the time. FAIL. Who can forget the rolling bricks that were the 1980 Thunderbird and Cougar. FAIL. Tempo/Topaz FAILED in the early ‘80s as the embodiment of mediocrity.

Of course there were some great successes supported by Ford’s rigorous research (Ford Truck Operations had an independent research department). The 1975 Econoline and 1980 F-Series were huge winners and the basic concepts have been winning formulas for years. It might be said that the success of these trucks was due to development independent of the car product development teams.

There was exhaustive research conducted for the ground-breaking 1986 Taurus. Research showed that the calculated risk that was the first Taurus could be a winner and could relaunch the company as a North American product leader.

Even with those successes, for many years, Ford fell into the trap of doing research to get the answers management wanted. The hypothesis was to be proven. One of their moderators confided to me that he “could get focus group respondents to say whatever he wanted.” Bad form.

Ford does not talk much about research. Like other companies, they have their proprietary methodologies. They must have been doing a fair job. Their products are competitive overall. There have been some expensive mistakes to be sure. While it is admirable that Ford lead the way with SYNC and MyFordTouch infotainment systems, they clearly failed on the consumer side to provide engineers with information on what consumers were ready to accept. FAIL.

On a personal note, when I whined that my Flex Limited could not be had with cooled front seats the brand manager haughtily said that is a feature “limited to Lincoln.” Now, given the much touted mantra of “democratization of technology,” cooled seats are available.

That brings us to today. On December 10, Ford announced “Re-imagining How to Create Future Vehicle User Experiences” with a level of excitement similar to announcing fusion power for the next Fusion. This “re-imagining” will move Ford from a “features-based” product development system to a “customer-experience-led process.” How? ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH!

This was presented as ground-breaking never-before-done in the auto industry. Well, sorry to break Ford’s bubble, but ethnographic research where researchers go as far as living with consumers for a period of time or to accompany them on their daily drives is not new. This first came to light in the late ‘80s when Lexus researchers lived with American luxury prospects for days or weeks. Infiniti followed suit. General Motors GM -3.45% went across the country with researchers, engineers, camera crews to learn what pickup buyers wanted… Alaska to Florida, Massachusetts to California and in-between.

The magic Ford purports to have uncovered is old news to us at AutoPacific. We have conducted ethnographic research for American, Asian and European car makers and suppliers. The projects have been big and small but always informative and educational helping car-makers provide their customers with better products targeted at what the customer wants. That it has taken so long for Ford to embrace this valuable information methodology is frankly surprising for a company known for its outstanding research capabilities. Or maybe they just never talked about it before.

About the Author

A leading automotive expert, George Peterson is President of AutoPacific, Inc. Mr. Peterson has more than thirty years of experience in the automotive industry. He holds an engineering undergraduate degree from Florida State University and an MBA in marketing and finance from the University of Michigan.


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