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US:Ford steers into a true bull market

Ford steers into a true bull market
Retooled image is more about cowboys than golfers



When PGA Tour star Phil Mickelson stops endorsing Ford this year, a snorting, bucking 1,500-pound beast will be readying in a stall, preparing to represent the brand in a very different championship tour.

Would-be Ford drivers, meet Super Duty the bull -- the automaker's latest attempt to reestablish Ford as the brand that stands for courage, strength and that anything-is-possible American spirit.

Ford Motor Co. recently bought a stake in 4-year-old Super Duty for an undisclosed sum, and the animal will soon enter the booming -- and dangerous -- sport of professional bull riding as part of the Built Ford Tough Series tour.

Manicured fairways were probably always a little too serene to pitch Ford -- a spirited brand whose character is rooted in the American dream and its accessibility to anyone who has the guts to go for the glory.

Marketing executives at Ford, who decided earlier this year to back out of the PGA Tour and the Senior Players Championship, have done a lot of soul searching in recent months about what the company's blue oval should stand for.

That was especially true after the automaker posted a $1.6-billion loss in North America last year, watched more than 132,000 Ford-brand auto sales evaporate in the United States and performed so poorly that the Chevrolet brand now boasts that it has taken over as the top-selling brand in America, a claim that Ford disputes.

Armed with new "RED, WHITE & BOLD" bracelets to remind them of their mission, Ford marketing executives decided that there were more appropriate -- and more affordable -- ways to peddle Fords than through genteel golf tournaments.

The Professional Bull Riders tournament, known as PBR, certainly has a bit more spunk.

In the sport -- now being carried on NBC and as a staple on the Outdoor Life Network -- a cowboy straddles onto a bull, straps one hand on and rides the bucking beast into an arena, where he tries to stay on for at least 8 seconds, while avoiding injury or death.

"It requires strength and balance, not to mention insanity," said Josh Peter, who wrote "Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies and Bull Riders," a 2005 book that details a year on the bull-riding tour.

Ford has long used bold, masculine venues to reach its pickup drivers, enlisting outspoken country music star Toby Keith and using Monster truck rallies and other venues to accomplish the mission.

But as part of its new Way Forward turnaround plan -- which aims to make Ford Motor profitable again in North America by 2008 -- the automaker is sharpening Ford's bold appeal.

Refocusing on its base

Ford has been ramping up its 5-year-old association with the Professional Bull Riders, becoming the title sponsor of a major 30-city tour -- scheduled to come to Detroit in April -- and buying an interest in cattle for its new Battle for the Bull contest, an online fan sweepstakes that gives the winner a stake in Super Duty.

The automaker is also pitching its cars and SUVs at the NASCAR, "American Idol" and Ironman Triathlon competitions.

Martin Collins, executive director of marketing for the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, said in a recent interview that Ford isn't changing its marketing direction so much as it is refocusing on its true identity, which he said stands for "strength and progress."

"This was an approach we took as part of the Way Forward plan, as we did a deeper dive to better understand the Ford brand and what it stood for," Collins said.

Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, an independent firm in Bandon, Ore., was more blunt in his assessment of Ford's recent marketing decision.

Golf, he said, was never a suitable venue for the Ford brand, which is dominated by sales of pickups. More than one-third of Ford's 2.6 million auto sales in the United States last year were of F-Series pickups.

"On one hand, you're trying to be Arnold Palmer, and on the other, you're trying to be a cowboy," said Spinella, criticizing the two as incongruent.

He said he believes the Ford brand needs to quickly shore up its sliding customer base, which is still very traditional in American attitude and values. It's also one of the most masculine brands on the market. The most recent data from the Power Information Network shows that about 71% of Ford buyers are men, compared with an industry average of about 64%.

"They've seen a lot of deterioration in their base," Spinella said, "and their base has always been that red, white and blue crowd."

The target: Strong individualists

Ultimately, customers with a cowboy spirit might be the bull's-eye target for Ford marketers, no matter where they're pitching new Fusion midsize sedans or Mustang pony cars.

So, are there enough cowboys out there to haul Ford out of trouble?

With the U.S. population booming in the South and West, it might seem like an ideal time to hone in on this particular psychological profile. But the cowboy mentality extends beyond these borders.

Some people who don't consider themselves cowboys may identify more with the strong individualist profile than even they realize.

Take Greg Harla, 37, a real estate broker and winemaker who lives in Milford, Conn. A native East Coast resident with an MBA in marketing, Harla said he does not consider himself a cowboy.

But last year, he bought a Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup, which retails for more than $40,000. In Milford, a wealthy, area populated by luxury names such as BMW and Mercedes, that makes Harla a bit of a rebel.

"People ask me why I drive a pickup, and I say, because I want to make a statement that you don't have to conform. That's something I get out of it," said Harla, who wears cowboy boots and listens to rap music.

"I could drive whatever I want. This is what I want to drive. ...

"This is America, I can do what I want."

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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