I spent a couple of days last week with Ford in Dearborn as part of an event for the social press/media called Forward With Ford.
In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine another company that could pull off what Ford did. For starters, the automotive industry occupies a spot within the American psyche. Ford products are a natural fit for a broad range of consumers – no need to force fit with slick advertising. And the company has a strong social media presence, providing a platform for effective engagement. Most importantly, the event wasn’t experimental in the sense that the topics were unrelated or new to the brand – you can see Ford’s communications consistency for example in this TED talk by Chairman Bill Ford.
Let me tell you about the people who were there. I met individuals representing interests including green living, mommy bloggers, Latino publishing, consumer electronics, and of course automotive enthusiasts. Key Ford representatives were Marisa Bradley, Lifestyle Marketing Manager who masterminded the event; Scott Monty, head of social media; Sheryl Connolly, head of Global Trends and Futuring; and Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who greeted the group at an opening dinner.
Ford hosted our broad cross-section of social media interests to learn about trends impacting the auto industry with overlap into the rest of our lives: emerging technologies, aging population, living green, safety and security, global design convergence, and engaging the senses. Accordingly, Malcolm Gladwell delivered a pre-dinner talk on macro trends drawing heavily from his October 2010 New Yorker article, The Talent Grab. The conference closed with Joel Garreau, bookending an action-packed two days of discussions and hands-on experiences.
On site, we were taken in-depth to see where Ford creates the future.
- In the design center, I saw a massive HD screen where car designs are reviewed, at a size reminiscent of the massive Dallas Cowboys stadium jumbotron.
- Ed Begley Jr. was on site to lead sessions on sustainability. I sat next to him at the opening dinner and we chatted about the Hydrogen Highway, windmills in Tehachapi, and personal solar power.
- On a tour of the labs, we met employees who were eager to share about “noise vision”, horn tuning, seat comfort, the “human occupant package simulator“, and smell jury. Unlike the Zappos tour, we didn’t encounter any employees dancing with synchronized Shake Weights, but we did hear from engineers and scientists who clearly love their jobs.
- At Ford’s test track, we were presented with eight experiences: off-roading in an Explorer to test all wheel drive responsiveness; skidding around with a professional driver on a wet track in a Mustang to demonstrate traction control; riding along in a demonstration of wi-fi enabled cars which can help prevent accidents; an eco-driving challenge to maximize fuel economy in a Fusion hybrid on the test track oval (mine was awful); drag racing F-150 trucks (I won); reviewing in-car technologies like voice, nav, and music; and driving a sensor-equipped Focus around an obstacle course for accuracy (me = perfect score).
I could go deep into how the FordTrends event is a manifestation of Social Business, but let me be brief and say that social business is business. Kudos to Ford for investing in an event to socialize the brand with an audience outside of the traditional gearhead set.