Market research drives product development at Ford

RP news wires, Noria Corporation

Search for information about Ford vehicles on the Internet, and you’ll find hundreds of consumer reviews for every model in its lineup. More than ever, consumers are influencing other consumer’s purchase decisions, but also product development itself. And Ford Motor Company is paying attention.

Ford conducts market research online and in person, refining and creating new data-gathering processes that influence product development and marketing campaigns. The company engages consumers through moderated clinics and through one-on-one interviews before vehicles reach market. It also mines the Internet for consumer comments in auto sites, chat rooms and blogs.

“Automakers haven’t always been committed to using consumer feedback in product development,” said Christine Stasiw-Lazarchuk, Ford director of Global Market Research, who came to Ford from the packaged goods industry six years ago. “PD decisions used to be driven more by material cost reduction, but that has changed, and the transformation has been extremely positive.”

Stasiw-Lazarchuk says that Ford executives Mark Fields, Derrick Kuzak and Peter Horbury are truly interested in customer feedback, and the evidence is in the designs shown at the Showroom of the Future presentation in Detroit last week.

“We’re heavily influenced by market research,” said Gordon Platto, Ford chief designer. “We go to customer immersion events and spend time with customers in their homes to understand how they use their vehicles. It enables us to better meet the customer needs. You can see the influence in our new vehicles.”

As vehicle segments get smaller and more diverse, Ford uses market research to understand how far to push design concepts and unique features, Platto said. This is done by extracting information from consumer questionnaires and by inviting customers to have open discussions with researchers in focus groups.

“When you’re not trying to please the masses, you can go to the edge of styling,” Platto said. “You go to market research with an open mind to understand what the customers are looking for.”

In order to refine a future niche vehicle, Market Research recently took one exterior design and two interior designs to a customer focus group in Georgia to ask specific questions about participants' likes and dislikes. The design team will analyze and interpret the consumer feedback in the next stage of the product’s development.

“It’s not just about styling; it’s about function, as well,” Platto said. “We learn a lot by listening to customers and observing how they use their vehicles.”

Global Market Research tests every new Ford ad with consumers online before the spots appear on television. “Copy testing” – as it’s known in the packaged goods industry – is relatively new to the auto industry. It is saving the company time and money by reducing the need to revamp ads.

The company anonymously tests its ads on third-party sites like eRewards alongside competitive ads. After watching the program, test respondents answer questions that help determine the ad’s effectiveness. The process is connected to Ford’s brand equity study, which gauges consumer brand confidence as well as their likelihood to seek more information about Ford vehicles after seeing an ad.

The Bold Moves ads, like the one featuring a father and son in a Mustang, tested very well before reaching TV, but Ford researchers warn that consumers aren’t easily swayed by slogans.

“Consumers are telling us that we need to match the slogan with bold products,” said Dilip Joshi, Ford advanced product research manager, International Markets. “An ad might break through the clutter, but will it be enough to motivate a purchase decision? That’s something we test for.”

Consumer testing in the Asia Pacific region revealed that Ford has excellent name recognition (better than 90 percent), but only 6 or 7 percent of those consumers said they would consider a Ford purchase. Researchers have found that this is influenced by a variety of factors including vehicle lineup, competition and marketing messages.

While communicating about Ford’s product portfolio in a relevant manner can generate consumer demand, different cultures demand different approaches. Market research helps determine the appropriate message. For example, the Ford SUV slogan “No Boundaries” didn’t translate well in some Asia Pacific cultures.

“Unless you’re in an SUV, ‘No Boundaries’ doesn’t mean much, and it can have a negative connotation about being a rebel or against family and tradition,” Joshi said. Ford has since replaced the slogan with the more positively received “Make Every Day Exciting.”

By taking a disciplined approach to gathering consumer feedback, Ford is gaining a better understanding of consumer expectations, and meeting and exceeding them with a strategic mix of large volume crowd pleasers and cutting-edge niche vehicles.

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