In his prophetic book, The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry, veteran automotive writer Brock Yates predicted the collapse of General Motors a couple decades early.
The work is famous for quotes like, "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1000 MPG." While that might be a bit of hyperbole to make a point, there’s a core of truth there -- that American automakers, dragged down by arrogance and lethargy, ignored emerging technology and fell behind the rest of the world’s manufacturers.
Essentially, Detroit’s automakers believed their products were and would remain superior to any foreign makes -- making the need to actively engage savvy buyers seem unnecessary. That kind of thinking put GM on the brink of disaster and almost pushed Ford to that same potential abyss.
A recent announcement from Ford indicates Motor City learned from its past mistakes and is enthusiastically embracing online and entertainment technology to promote brand awareness. And the numbers indicate it’s working.
At a recent event sponsored by Ford to preview its cars destined for the LA Auto Show, reporters had a chance to play video games featuring the automaker’s models. For example, the "Gran Turismo 5" game offers 28 Fords to choose from, including everything from the entry-level Ford Ka to an elite Ford GT. And seven cars show up in another game, "Need For Speed: The Run" -- including the Boss Mustang 302 and a Police Interceptor Concept design.
As it would pay to purchase ad space on a billboard or Website, Ford contracts with the game makers to have its real cars placed in the games. A report from Aaron Miller in Ford Communications, the auto giant's publicity arm, indicates that those placements of real-world Ford vehicles in virtual environments boost sales in our material world.
According to Miller, more than 250 million copies of games that feature a Ford product have been sold since Ford entered the gaming industry in 1995 with "Sega Rally", including racing, simulation, and adventure games. Ford’s in-house studies indicate in-game placements of Ford vehicles result in a 36 percent increase in Ford’s brand rating and a 28 percent increase in purchase consideration among targeted buyers.
So, Ford is allowing would-be buyers to drive their cars in a virtual, ideal, and accentuated environment in the hope that they’ll look to replicate some of that experience on real streets.
“This is about how Ford’s involvement in video games is improving Ford's reputation and consideration,” Miller contends.
Ford’s embracing of new media extends beyond console video games to augmented reality. The 2013 Ford Fusion is emerging into the market first via a smartphone and tablet app featuring a daily video clip that unlocks program features and original online content, including demonstrations of key vehicle features. The Fusion experience is available for iOS and Android devices.
Users of the app will drive a Fusion through a series of specially designed “worlds” that unlock to reveal the vehicle. That allows would-be owners to virtually test drive the Fusion through various environments leading up to its reveal at the 2012 North American International Auto Show. The app should get a lot of play a month from now in Las Vegas, where the current Ford Fusion will be featured as the “Official Car of the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show.”
The app and video game reach-out programs add up to a combined effort to use emerging media to put Ford shoppers behind the wheel of Ford cars before those cars are built, in showrooms or otherwise within reach of consumers. When you consider how much marketing forethought that requires, the changing mindset in Detroit comes into focus.
That American automotive industry Yates bemoaned as languishing in its past now embraces current technology to direct drivers’ collective attention to the future. Only time will tell if this more technologically advanced and aggressive strategy keeps the US car business in the black and on people’s minds, whether they’re flicking a game controller or turning a steering wheel.
— John Scott Lewinski is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles.