Harvard Business Online

How Ford Got Social Marketing Right


Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 7, 2010 12:20 PM

Ford recently wrapped the first chapter of its Fiesta Movement, leaving us distinctly wiser about marketing in the digital space.

Ford gave 100 consumers a car for six months and asked them to complete a different mission every month. And away they went. At the direction of Ford and their own imagination, "agents" used their Fiestas to deliver Meals On Wheels. They used them to take Harry And David treats to the National Guard. They went looking for adventure, some to wrestle alligators, others actually to elope. All of these stories were then lovingly documented on YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter.

The campaign was an important moment for Ford. It wanted in to the small car market, and it hadn't sold a subcompact car in the United States since it discontinued the Aspire in 1997.

And it was an important moment for marketing. The Fiesta Movement promised to be the most visible, formative social media experiment for the automotive world. Get this right and Detroit marketing would never be the same.

I had the good fortune to interview Bud Caddell the other day and he helped me see the inner workings of the Fiesta Movement. Bud works at Undercurrent, the digital strategy firm responsible for the campaign.

Under the direction of Jim Farly, Group VP at Ford and Connie Fontaine, manager of brand content there, Undercurrent decided to depart from the viral marketing rule book. Bud told me they were not interested in the classic early adopters, the people who act as influencers for the rest of us. Undercurrent wanted to make contact with a very specific group of people, a passionate group of culture creators.

Bud said,

The idea was: let's go find twenty-something YouTube storytellers who've learned how to earn a fan community of their own. [People] who can craft a true narrative inside video, and let's go talk to them. And let's put them inside situations that they don't get to normally experience/document. Let's add value back to their life. They're always looking, they're always hungry, they're always looking for more content to create. I think this gets things exactly right. Undercurrent grasped the underlying motive (and the real economy) at work in the digital space. People are not just telling stories for the sake of telling stories, though certainly, these stories have their own rewards. They were making narratives that would create economic value.

The digital space is an economy after all. People are creating, exchanging and capturing value, as they would in any marketplace. But this is a gift economy, where the transactions are shot through with cultural content and creation. In a gift economy, value tends to move not in little "tit for tat" transactions, but in long loops, moving between consumers before returning, augmented, to the corporation. In this case, adventures inspired by Undercurrent and Ford return as meaning for the brand and value for the corporation.

Undercurrent was reaching out to consumers not just to pitch them, but to ask them to help pitch the product. And the pitch was not merely a matter of "buzz." Undercurrent wanted consumers to help charge the Fiesta with glamor, excitement, and oddity — to complete the "meaning manufacture" normally conducted only by the agency.

This would be the usual "viral marketing" if all the consumer was called upon to do was to talk up Fiesta. But Undercurrent was proposing a richer bargain, enabling and incenting "agents" to create content for their own sakes, to feed their own networks, to build their own profiles...and in the process to contribute to the project of augmenting Fiesta's brand.

Fiesta's campaign worked because it was founded on fair trade. Both the brand and the agent were giving and getting. And this shows us a way out of the accusations that now preoccupy some discussions of social media marketing. With their gift economy approach, Ford and Undercurrent found a way to transcend all the fretting about "what bright, shining object can we invent to get the kids involved?" and, from the other side, all that "oh, there he goes again, it's the Man ripping off digital innocents." It's a happier, more productive, more symmetrical, relationship than these anxieties imply. Hat's off to Farley and Fontaine.

The effects of the campaign were sensational. Fiesta got 6.5 million YouTube views and 50,000 requests for information about the car—virtually none from people who already had a Ford in the garage. Ford sold 10,000 units in the first six days of sales. The results came at a relatively small cost. The Fiesta Movement is reputed to have cost a small fraction of the typical national TV campaign.

There is an awful lot of aimless experiment in the digital space these days. A lot of people who appear not to have a clue are selling digital marketing advice. I think the Fiesta Movement gives us new clarity. It's a three-step process.

• Engage culturally creative consumers to create content.
• Encourage them to distribute this content on social networks and digital markets in the form of a digital currency.
• Craft this is a way that it rebounds to the credit of the brand, turning digital currency (and narrative meaning) into a value for the brand.

In effect, outsource some of our marketing work. And in the process, turn the brand itself into an "agent" and an enabler of cultural production that is interesting and fun. Now the marketer is working with contemporary culture instead of against it. And everyone is well-served.

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