The automotive industry has had more than its share of setbacks in the last few years. But according to Jon Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s VP of global marketing, his company has learned some lessons from the economic downturn. And while Ford’s bottom line might not show it yet, Farley thinks that Ford is poised to prove it soon.

Speaking this week at AdAge Digital in New York, Farley demonstrated some of the new media skills that his company has acquired. But he had bad news for publishers and networks hoping that a healthier car industry will result in an automotive advertising bounce back. Since the recession hit, Ford has learned how to do more with less. And even if the company’s current upswing continues, Ford isn’t planning to go back to standard ad formats anytime soon. 

Farley did not waste any time painting a rosy picture of Ford over the last decade. As he said:

“Ford has been losing marketshare for 14 years straight in the U.S.”

But in the last year, they’ve gained a lot of marketshare. Farley says that it’s because Ford has shed some of its products to focus on fewer models and selling them the right way. That means bring affordable cars to people with bigger features.

At Ford, “we’re about democratizing technology.” Lately, that has meant incorporating new technology features into the driving experience, which could be something as simple as a USB port in the dashboard or a hands free voice controlled cellphone dock.

But the company also took the downturn as an opportunity to revamp the way it advertises and markets its products.

“If the economy hadn’t done what it did, all of us would be in a different place. We would have been on
auto pilot and not experimented the way we did. The digital space would look a lot like it did a few years ago [for us], but with a few more apps.”

With a greatly reduced advertising budget, Ford decided to use its customers to help market its cars. One way that the company is doing that is through the use of customer “agents” that have been employed across the country over the past year to help launch its low-end eco-friendly car Fiesta.

The newly redesigned Fiesta is one of the top selling cars in Europe, but it has yet to be sold stateside. But the company did something novel last year. It began heavily marketing that car in the U.S. before people could go out and buy it. And instead of lots of traditional big media buys, Ford went to the web:

“We let the Fiesta movement agents tell our story online.”

Ford has created a web page, Ford Fiesta Movement, to help market the launch of the Fiesta, which will be available in the U.S. in a few weeks. Ford
“agents” — volunteers competing to win a Fiesta — are given access to a Ford Fiesta and tasked with creating innovative advertising and video about it. The website reads:

“In anticipation of Fiesta arriving in the U.S. – we’re letting its fans
take a crack at the advertising. They’ll use their creativity to
promote the new 2011 Fiesta. And you get to be the judge.

Agents who participate will get to use a Ford Fiesta over the program
period. We’ll pay for the gas. Team members will compete for prizes (of
varying dollar amounts) and will have an equal chance to win a Ford

What has been the result? Tons of pictures, video and new ad ideas that Ford would have never gotten from traditional 30 second spots. Last year, Ford followed 100 agents over a six month period with the car. This year, they’re following even more, and having them explore and promote their cities. As the below video shows, the results don’t often look like a traditional ad spot (though some of the agents will be featured in more traditional videos when the Fiesta goes on sale stateside in a few weeks).

Farley says that the company has learned a lot in the last year, working on this social campaign. A lot of people who interacted with the Fiesta campaign online are just starting to discover Ford as a brand, and reaching a younger audience is what Detroit automakers need to survice. Going forward, Ford wants to make sure that new people discovering the brand like what they see.

According to AdAge:

“Mr. Farley said the company is also rethinking the way it approaches
media planning. “If you look at a normal traditional media spend, it
involves using traditional media when our cars are … arriving at
dealerships,” he said. “Then we spend big on traditional broadcast
media to get frequency.” Mr. Farley said the more involved he got in
making upfront media buys the less “right” it felt.”

Farley says that this campaign has been run with “10 cents on the dollar of traditional media.” Ford has 10,000 reservations for pre-ordered Fiestas. But the company is really trying to figure out ways to create and continue a relationship with customers in a rapidly changing environment.

“When Ford is at its best, its products make available to millions things that were never available to them before in transportation.”

And while Farley admits that his company has a long way to go, Ford has learned a lot through this process of what media to use and when. He says that while you may not see Ford purchasing audience views during events like the SuperBowl with the same frequency as it once did, the company is also being careful about what new technologies it uses and when. 

“I don’t really care about putting an ad on the iPad. It’s about how we bring an experience that’s unique to that technology. We want quality over quantity.”

Images: Ford