Great marketing disasters 1: The Ford Edsel

In 1957, Ford announced that it was to replace one of its most iconic models, the Thunderbird.  They said they were to create “the car of the future” and ploughed nearly $300 million into its development.

The result of this investment was the Ford Edsel, probably the biggest flop in the company’s history and which led to Ford making $350 million in losses.

So what went wrong?

Well, the answer is just about everything. Here are a few examples:

Ford announced the new model before they had even started work on the design of the Edsel and their promise of ‘the car of the future’ led to huge customer expectation.  When the Edsel was finally exposed to public scrutiny, people saw not their expectation of a futuristic car but one which looked old-fashioned and of the past.  Ford failed to recognise that public tastes had changed and large cars with lots of fins and chrome were no longer in vogue.  Public taste was changing and what people wanted were the modern sleek cars which had begun to emerge from Europe and Japan.  Ford had undertaken a massive market research programme of consumer polling for the Edsel but senior management pretty much ignored that research and went with their own preconceptions of public taste.

Ford’s analysis of the US macro-economy was also lacking. The Edsel was designed to attract America’s aspirational middle class.  It was to be a prestige car sold at a price premium.  The problem was that the US economy was slowing;  fuel costs were rising and many of Ford’s target market were suffering in the aftermath of a stock market crash.  They simply couldn’t afford an Edsel and its large gas-guzzling engine meant huge fuel bills.  Given the economic state of America, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle were becoming popular.

Ford rushed the Edsel to market and it was clear that there were serious quality issues with the cars manufacture.  Cars would be delivered to customers with massive oil leaks, bonnets which were jammed shut and buttons that could only be pressed with the aid of a hammer.  A car which was meant to be a prestige vehicle quickly got a reputation for mechanical unreliability.

Consumers simply did not like the look of the Edsel.  Some uncouth commentators stated that the front grille of the car looked like certain intimate parts of the female anatomy.  the car was seen as ugly.

Ford persuaded it dealers to stock a massive number of Edsels at launch.  These dealers were then left with forecourts full of vehicles which simply would not sell. As well as disappointing consumers, Ford angered many of its dealer network who demanded that Ford take back the cars they had effectively been forced to stock.

The product range for the Edsel was huge.  Ford launched the model with 18 separate variations of the car.  Rather than focusing on its core customer segment, the Edsel was marketed as the car for everyone.  This caused huge confusion amongst consumers.  Was the Edsel a sporty tourer, an executive saloon or a family runabout.  People simply did not understand what Ford was selling them.

The press launch was also a disaster.  Ford split its PR along gender lines.  Male journalists were shown the Edsel being driven round a track by a stunt driver.  At one point, the driver almost flipped the car over.  An event designed to show the cars nimble handling gave the impression that the Edsel was a lumbering dinosaur and potentially dangerous.  The few female journalists (and the wives of the male journalists) were given an entertainment show based around the Edsel.  It turned out that this event was being presented by a female impersonator.  This probably wouldn’t have been an issue today but for the conservative middle class of 50’s America, it was shocking.  As a result of this disastrous launch, the Edsel received terrible reviews in the press.

The cars name didn’t inspire the American public; they simply didn’t relate to it.  They had become used to cars having powerful names such as the Corvette and the Thunderbird.  Edsel simply wasn’t inspiring and Ford did a bad job of explaining that the car was named in honour of Henry Ford’s son.  The few Americans that understood, saw the cars name as egotistical.

Finally, Ford had invested so heavily in the Edsel they were stuck with it.  It took another three years before it was replaced by the Mustang.  Ford had not considered what to do if their Plan A failed.  They had no plan B.  They were lumbered with a model of car the American public simply did not work and they stubbornly refused to drop the Edsel.  It took the resignation of the company’s CEO and a new management team to get rid of the car.

So what lessons can we learn from the disaster that was the Ford Edsel:

  1.  Don’t let management egos over-ride market research
  2. Focus on your vision of the product and don’t try to satisfy everyone
  3. Don’t put yourself in a position you cannot get out of.  Always have contingency plans
  4. If you fail, accept it and move on.  Don’t continually flog a dead horse.

Philmus Consulting can help your business to develop strategic marketing plans based on sound marketing principles and market research.