Ford’s Odell Steers Brand Toward ‘Mobility Services’

What does a global marketing VP do in a world where cars-on-demand, ride-hailing services, and a passion for biking could lead to fewer car sales? If that executive is Stephen Odell, he leads his company, Ford, in a new mobile direction.

Ford’s Odell Steers Brand Toward ‘Mobility Services’

Stephen Odell is a car guy. He joined Ford Britain as a graduate trainee in 1980 and rose through the ranks. When Ford Motor Company acquired Jaguar, took a stake in Mazda, and bought Volvo, Odell took leadership roles in marketing and sales for those brands. In January 2015, he became Ford’s EVP of global marketing, sales, and service.

So what does Odell do now in a world where cars-on-demand, ride-hailing services, and a passion for biking could lead to fewer car sales? He takes a leadership role in transforming Ford into a provider of “mobility services.”

A case in point is the launch of FordPass in the United States and Canada in April. FordPass is a free membership program that includes mobile payments, a loyalty program, partnerships with Parkopedia and Flightcar, live, on-call “guides” similar to OnStar’s service, and glitzy showrooms called FordHubs designed to appeal to Generation Z.

We started our conversation with a focus on marketing and its synergies with the rest of operations. You oversee sales, service, and marketing. How do you see those working together and reinforcing each other?

Odell: It’s all integrated, which is important because it enables us to bring all the consumer aspects together. If you are a customer who is called in to our service area, it would be useful to you, as well as to us, if we also know you bought a Focus in Chicago and have a service record over here, and you also paid through Ford Credit. We can then treat you as a person rather than a piece of data.

In the end, marketing is the experience you give a customer, or even a non-customer, and the way they perceive you. Ford hired its first chief data officer, Paul Ballew, in December 2014. What has this role brought to the marketing party? How will you use the data?

Odell: [Ballew] is working on consolidating databases that have grown up separately around the company. It would be advantageous for us to see the customer as a 360-degree individual rather than as a piece of data that’s fragmented. And in the new world of data analytics, we will be able to have a lifestage conversation with a customer based on data they provide. There’s a big discussion on who owns the data. The customer does. If a customer is prepared to allow you to have that data, because it’s advantageous to them, then that is relevant and that’s exactly the way we’ll use it. In general, consumers rate the experience at car dealers pretty low. What are you doing to bring the dealer experience in line with Ford’s brand values?

Odell: If you’re talking about the industry, in general, the perception is that there are definitely pain points throughout the purchase cycle. Dealers are like any cross section of society in the world. There are some real thought leaders that are helping us, and there are some that are more traditional and not moving forward.

Some people are nervous about going to physical dealerships, so they do a lot of research online. So it’s important that we make the research they do online compatible with the experience they have either at a dealership or directly with us. Through FordPass, you can talk to a guide about your mobility solutions, and if you want a deeper understanding about a product, we refer them to our own product people, and they, in turn, could refer them to a dealer.

In the U.S., we offer dealers the Consumer Experience Movement, where dealers have self-selected to go through training on how they interface with each other and with the customer. In Europe, it’s called Ford Stores. They are, in many cases, larger facilities that need to meet certain standards of customer experience. The facilities are very welcoming, a bit like the Genius Bar experience at Apple. There’s no shame in borrowing an idea if it works. Millennials and Hispanics are two of the most sought-after demographics, and Ford is strong with both groups. How much of that is organic word of mouth, and how much have you targeted those markets?

Odell: We do have targeted marketing programs for Hispanics and African-Americans. One of the most important points is to have a retail experience that matches what the consumer looks like. I’m not saying Hispanics only want to deal with Hispanics, but it is far more comforting sometimes for someone in a perceived environment they are nervous of to go into an environment that matches them. We have a large number of very good Hispanic dealers.

Then there’s this big debate that Millennials aren’t going to buy cars. Everything I’ve seen says that they are. But they are deferring that purchase either for financial reasons or until they go through a life stage where they will need certainty of transportation, such as marriage or having children. The thought of waiting for a cab with kids or schlepping them along on a train is not much fun. Generation Z will set its own standards. So the idea of FordPass is to reach younger consumers before they’re ready to buy a car?

Odell: One of the epiphanies we had was that there were so many disruptors out there, why would we disrupt our own business? A normal customer spends four to five hours with us, normally through our dealers, throughout a year. But when they are in some form of transportation, they spend 900 hours a year. Why wouldn’t we want to participate in those 900 hours? And the only way to do it is to solve some of their problems.

FordPass allows us to interface with the customer not only in the automotive world–and we love the automotive world, we’ve been doing it for 112 years–but also with cycles throughout ownership of our product. And some members may not even own a car. We can become part of the fabric of their lives. FordPass, if we solve customers’ mobility problems, which is our aim, will enable us to build up rapport with consumers over an extended period of time. The FordHubs will be nontransactional. You can go in and ask about the company or the products we offer or the mobility services we offer. They will have live, digital maps of the city showing multimodal transportation options. The guides will be able to help you got through that experience. When is the tipping point when we don’t think of Ford as a carmaker any more but as a mobility services provider?

Odell: There won’t be a tipping point that goes from one to the other. At some point, both will not just be relevant; both will be inseparable. But that’s not for me to predict. It’s for customers to tell us.

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