“Ford Edsel” Brand Failure Case Study and Business Lessons

After spending 250 Million dollars in development over a 10 year period, backed by a solid market-research data and followed by a year-long teaser campaign, Ford launched “Edsel” brand car in September 1957, with an assured air of overconfidence in creating a revolution.

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www.bloomberg.com

The company expected to sell at least 2,00,000 Edsels in the first year. Two years later, only one lakh ‘Edsels’ were sold. By November 1959, having lost around $350 million on the Edsel, the Ford company decided to discontinue its production. It was an unexpected spectacular flop and it had become a timeless case study for brand failures.

Failures may not show what could be the right way to do things, but it would indicate the pitfalls in a path, helping us to avoid re-inventing the wheel in certain scenarios.

‘Edsel’ brand failure has taught some valuable lessons not only to Ford but also to other brands. So, what are the positive and negative takeaways for us?

FRAMING THE PROBLEM -The Why and What Statement

Why did Ford need to build an Edsel? Why did they need another Carline? What did Ford expect to gain from this new car? or Why did customers need Ford Edsel? What would they gain from this car? Company-centric or Customer-centric?

Back in 1954, Ford Motor Company realised that there was a void in their offerings of medium prized automobiles — Customers who upgrade from Lower end of the market to Medium end of the market.

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In the medium segment, Ford had only “Mercury” brand, whereas GM and Chrysler had brands like Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Dodge, Desoto, Chrysler.

The research showed that Ford was losing many of its customers to other manufacturers when the time came for Ford’s customer to trade-up from the lower end segment. The options from competitors in the “Medium” segment attracted “Ford” lower end owners to shift loyalty and move to other brands.

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The research further showed that because of the multiple brands in the medium priced segment, GM could retain 87% of its Chevrolet customers, Chrysler could retain 77% of its Plymouth customers and on the other hand, Ford could retain only 26% of its customers. Ford was losing a large number of its customers to rivals.

At the beginning of 1955, the demand for medium-priced cars was also on high. GM and Chrysler registered sales of 45–60% more than the previous years. Ford was missing out the growth phenomenon. The company badly needed a new car line to supplement Mercury in the medium price segment.

OBJECTIVES

Ford Company executives defined the following objectives.

  • To ensure greater retention of ford upgraders
  • To get greater coverage for the medium price market for Ford Motor Company
  • To add more dealers to Ford Family so that they can sell more ford cars
  • The aim is just not to sell more Edsel cars but should help to sell more ford cars by “Halo Effect”

The measurable outcomes -Based on the newly emerging research technique ‘Motivational Research’, Edsel’s executives were given expected outcomes for the car -

  • Edsel should be ‘The Smart Car for Growing America’
  • To attract young professionals
  • The design of the car was to be completely unique — distinguishable from any angle(The foremost criteria)
  • The car should have advanced features.

THE MARKETING MYOPIA

Ford framed the problem by looking at existing competitors rather than customers.

LOSING DIFFERENTIATION

Benchmarking the Competitor’s product to understand market signals, market behaviour, market trends, is a noise and a distraction from a brand’s core activities. Product data about the market can be gathered more successfully by studying the users. Unfortunately, Ford followed the competitor. The problem with following the competitor was that your product would be almost similar to your competitor except in appearance.

If you are trying to build every feature competition is doing, then you won’t be building things, what competition is not doing.

The Myopia -By following competitors, companies spend billions of dollars to make products that look similar to the competitor and slightly better than their previous generation products. Except for the aesthetics, the customer will find it difficult to differentiate a product from other competitive products. In other words, all products look different in the same way. That’s what happened with the Ford Edsel. For one year prior to the launch, Ford released teasers with a tagline “Car of The Future” and created a huge hype. It fuelled unrealistic expectations from customers. But when the ‘Edsel’ car was launched, customers could not find any new value propositions that were different from other brands except for the addition of a few non-essential features.

Features or Values -Ford introduced a lot of technical innovations in the ‘Edsel’ car like Teletouch transmission, floating speedometer, self-adjusting brakes, transmission lock, electronic hood release and so on. It was advertised as a feature-rich car. Unfortunately, customers do not want features in a product but only value offerings -What value a product could offer that is different from a competing brand. Edsel offered features and not values.

Lack Of Value Innovation -From their perspective, Ford’s executives thought that some of their introductions, namely, Teletouch transmission, floating speedometer were valuable innovations. But customers didn’t think so.

W. CHAN KIM & RENÉE MAUBORGNE writes in Blue Ocean Strategy “Value without Innovation is an incremental innovation, which will not help you stand out in a marketplace. Innovation without value to user tends to be technology driven, often shooting beyond needs of users/buyers or what buyers can afford”.

Some of the features in ‘Edsel’ car was more of incremental innovations but few of the features were ahead of time. Unfortunately, customers didn’t really feel the need for those new innovations at that time. For example -Some users commented that Edsel’s speedometer could be set to warn the driver when he was speeding -Floating speedometer — when the pre-set limit is exceeded it glows, Lighting signs on the dashboard with one- or two-word messages like ‘’service engine’’ or ‘door ajar’, Transmission lock — remains in Park until the ignition key is turned on, Triple-thermostat cooling system — includes block, cylinder head and radiator, Hood release was electronically controlled from inside the car.

SELLING IDENTITY OR STYLING

Consumers Love to be Unique -We deride wearing uniforms as we feel that it suppresses us from showing off our individuality. We love to wear unique clothes to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. We decry living in a house that looks similar to all other houses in the neighbourhood. The research shows that we experience a negative emotional reaction when we feel overly similar to others. We need options in whatever product we chose in order to be different from our immediate neighbours or colleagues.

Showing Off The Uniqueness -A car is no more just a vehicle to take us from place A to place B. It has become a coveted status symbol for an individual. The customers use the product to show their success, personality, character and attitude. As Ford’s research team showed, customers needed options in the ‘Medium Price’ range so that they could choose something different in order to show their uniqueness from their peers.

GM and Chrysler’s options allowed its customers to choose a model in the ‘Medium Price’ range to suit their identities.

So, it was clear that Ford needs to come out with a new design that would provide a distinct identity to the customer. Unfortunately, they thought that identity means the styling of the car has to be completely unique — distinguishable from any angle, from other cars in the market.

The problem with this objective — Identity doesn’t mean ‘Aesthetics’ alone. Aesthetics is only a small part of the whole identity. They missed out providing a wonderful product experience and product quality. Even on the aesthetics front, Edsel’s team focussed solely on making the car aesthetically different from the existing cars rather than making the car aesthetically appealing to customers.

It is true that customers buy products that will help them to show a different identity but that identity is not just based on aesthetics alone. Ford Edsel failed to offer any new values to the customer. Value propositions are also a part of identity.

CUSTOMER CENTRIC OR PRODUCT CENTRIC

“You have got to start with customer experience first. Understand their needs. And then work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it” -Steve Jobs.

In Apple, Steve Jobs pioneered a customer-centric strategy -Before initiating any project, the team will start with asking questions - What incredible benefits can we give it to the customer? How can we solve a problem faced by the customer? How can we give meaning to a customer’s life? How can we elevate the customer’s experience? Where can we take the customer in his life? How can we help a customer to fulfil his dreams, ambitions through our product? Answers to those questions form the objectives of the project.

From the above it is clear, it is not about the profits or benefits to the company, but it’s about benefits to the customer and about changing the customer’s life.

Now, look at the Edsel project’s objectives -To ensure greater retention of ford upgraders, To get greater coverage for the medium price market for Ford Motor Company, To add more dealers to Ford Family so that they can sell more ford cars, The aim is just not to sell more Edsel cars but should help to sell more ford cars by “Halo Effect”.

What do you feel by reading the above objectives? Does it not appear like — only about Ford, rather than people or consumers? Does it not talk about benefits for Ford than consumers? It appears like Ford Centric(Indirectly — Product-Centric) than Consumer Centric objectives.

If affects the thinking perspectives and thereby resulting in biased solutions.

Theodore Levitt writes in the HBR article that companies will do better if they concentrate on meeting the customer needs rather than on selling the products. Ford was trying to design a product without really understanding the customer needs.

Customer focused company — If you ask a phone manufacturer, he would say that he is the business of connecting people and enabling communication any place, anytime rather than saying they are in the business of making smartphones — A G Lafley

Ford management team used entirely internal measures for success/progress of the project — for example, Technical Achievements like Teletouch, floating speedometer, Self-adjusting brakes, transmission lock, electronic hood release. They should have used external, customer-centric measures to understand the utility value of a feature.

The product-centric view made the Ford focus on materials, engineering and took them away from the customer.

OBSERVING CUSTOMERS

The Bean Counters -In the 1950s, Ford’s top leadership were occupied by financial analysts who were called ‘Bean Counters’. They never worked as a salesman or in any other position where they had to interact directly with the customers. Compare that with Lee Iacocca, who had become president of Ford in the 1960s. He had worked for fifteen years in sales and marketing before rising through the leadership rank. Even after becoming GM, then president, he remained in touch with the customers and dealers. He had a wonderful understanding of the customers, dealers and importantly, changing market conditions. On the other hand, the ‘bean counters’ were hired from external sources by Henry Ford to run the organisation. Most of them had no prior knowledge of automobile customers. They were good at crunching the numbers, saving the resources and running the organisations lean. They eventually began to occupy leadership positions.

As the ‘bean counters’ had spent very less time with customers, they had no understanding of customer’s needs, wants and desires. They never gave importance to the concept of selling an experience instead of selling a product. They also failed to observe the shifting market conditions, the shift in customer’s attitudes and needs. The bean counters thought in terms of numbers rather than in terms of people, jobs to be done and the contexts. They saw the auto industry in terms of volumes and profits and had no passion for cars.

Being Away From The Boxing Ring -The Edsel car was planned to meet the needs of customers living in the year 1954. By 1957, due to the recession, things had changed a lot and Ford’s team missed the changing consumer trends and attitudes.

“When the Edsel was first developed it looked like big was the way to go,” says Ellsworth, “But by 1958 people were thinking more along the lines of smaller economy cars. The public’s interest in huge, big fin cars with glitzy chrome was just about over,” he notes.

Those people who were in direct contact with their customers would be the first one to witness shifting customer demands, needs and attitudes. The top leadership failed to spend time and listen to customers. It would have been a valuable investment.

OBSERVING NEXT GENERATION OF CUSTOMERS

One of the Edsel team’s objectives is ‘Greater retention of Ford upgraders’. It is the beginning of the end if we start thinking about preserving old customers than attracting next generation customers.

Clayton Christensen says, “Best firms succeeded because they listened responsibly to customers, invested aggressively in technology, manufacturing abilities, designed wonderful products to meet the next generation needs. Same best firms failed after some time, because they listened to the SAME customers, invested again, designed again to meet NEXT GENERATION needs”.

As a brand, it is true that you need to be obsessed with existing users. You need to listen to them, observe them and identify their hidden needs. But focusing only on existing customers will break the existing market into finer segments, forcing us to tailor the offerings further, and reducing the market further. To remain relevant in the changing business environment, you need to build a product with a focus on “Next generation users”.

The Potential Next Generation Customers -By 1958, baby boomers(born between 1940–1950) were becoming influential due to their sheer numbers and they were beginning to establish their own identity. They loved to be in charge of their own lives. They also influenced their parent’s choices. Every product manufacturer was slowly beginning to alter their products to meet the needs and desires of this youth segment. Edsel’s executives missed this target segment as they were working based on the research conducted in the early 1950s.

The Potential Non-Customers -As the economy was booming, there was an enormous growth of families that would require two cars. The families preferred their second car to be typically smaller and more sporty than the first. A lot of women began to buy cars. They preferred small cars with easy manoeuvrability. The woman also played a substantial role in influencing the purchase of the second car in the families as they would be using the car most. In the late 1950s, consumers with some sort of college degree had bought more than 40% of the cars sold. The customers were becoming more sophisticated and highly informative. Edsel’s top management missed out all the information.

The Edsel car had to appeal to youngsters and the women but there was no mention of this target segment in any of their project objectives. They just wanted their car to be visually different from competitors and increased profits for the company. Their final design did not have elements that would attract young people and women.

OBSERVING EMERGING COMPETITORS

It is important to observe competitors, not to follow or copy them but to understand the change in user’s attitudes, change in contexts etc… Many businesses make a mistake in following up only their existing competitors. They miss out tracking the emergence of new competitors. A new competitor emerges for only one reason -To respond to changes in the business environment and user’s attitudes.

The BEETLE

In the year 1955, when Ford’s team was fully involved in styling the ‘Edsel’, a small, strange-looking German car was getting massively popular. It was widely covered in almost all the major magazines. It was ‘The Beetle’ -A lot of young Americans were buying that car.

“Drivers have actually fallen in love with a car”, wrote the ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine.

Every passing year, the average age of beetle buyers was falling at an unusually rapid rate. The beetle was visually distinct from all the other cars. Do you think that the difference in visual appearance alone, helped in popularising the car?

If a product’s competitive advantage is only on styling then the product is in its last legs. But the ‘Beetle’ offered new value propositions to the customer -The car required little maintenance and could withstand punishing wear and tear. It was lighter in weight and easy to manoeuvre which appealed to the women. Due to its lightness and its somewhat aerodynamic shape, the car could travel at impressive speeds which appealed to youngsters. Being lighter, the car was also fuel efficient than the big American cars. Due to its high ground clearance and a rugged underbody, the drivers could easily negotiate on uneven roads.

A product is mostly about meeting the needs of a customer in different contexts and the ‘Beetle’ matched the requirements of its chosen target segment. Another important point, the car was cheaper and affordable. It soon became the second car of choice for many affluent families that lived in the suburbs.

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Image from Cargurus.com

A Trivia -Henry Ford’s son who was the chairman of the company then, strongly felt that the ‘Beetle’ had no market in the U.S but the car proved him wrong.

NASH RAMBLER

Another emerging competitor during this period was ‘Nash Rambler’ car -It was visually different from the existing car models in the automobile market. This car was rounded in form and gave a sporty feel. It was smaller than the contemporary cars from the ‘three big’ brands and in 1956, the Rambler line created and defined a new market segment called ‘Compact Car’. The car was lighter in weight, easy to manoeuvre and offered better fuel economy than the big sized American cars of that time. The car was initially launched in the medium price segment.

Their marketing campaigns projected Nash Rambler as a second family car. The advertisements featured women with a tagline “a woman’s dream-of-a-car come true!”. The car’s interiors were designed to appeal to the eyes and feelings of women. They were spot on with the requirements of their market segment.

In 1957, Rambler sold 82,000 units. In 1958, Rambler’s sales increased to 119,000 units even though the sales of cars of all three bigger brands were down by a huge margin in that year, due to the Eisenhower recession. A dramatic increase in sales during the years of depression.

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1957 Nash Rambler from Hemmings.com

THE STUDEBAKER LARK

In the year 1958, another competitive product was also creating waves -Studebaker Lark, another compact car that saved the parent company from potential bankruptcy. The car was designed and developed in only seven months. The press didn’t give any prominence to this car, yet Lark received more than 30,000 orders during the launch. It was a less flashy automobile with clean lines, minimal chrome, and simple grille. In 1959, during the recession, 160,826 Larks were sold.

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Studebaker Lark 1958 from Historicimages.com

The sales records of Nash Rambler, Beetle and Studebaker Lark clearly show that people no longer looked at ‘how big their cars were’ but liked compact, economical, sporty shaped and fuel-efficient cars.

On the other hand, Edsel was a longer and wider car. It was heavy and fuel guzzler. Women did not find it easy to manoeuvre. It didn’t have a sleek and sporty feel.

While seeking signals from competitors, it was important that we should not try to copy the product features or benefits from them. We observe competitors in order to know the emergence of new customer segments, changes in culture and attitude of existing customers, the type of technology they use and understand the reasons behind those changes.

MARKET POSITIONING

One of the major factors for a product’s success is in positioning the product in the consumer’s mind in relation to competing products. To position a product, a company might employ a ‘cost leadership’ strategy or a ‘differentiation through new value propositions’ strategy. Unfortunately, Edsel didn’t offer any new value propositions. How about cost leadership -offering the product at a price lower than the competitors.

Let’s have a look at the earlier ‘Market Segment’ image again

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Mercury was positioned at the lower end of the medium price segment. Where do you think Ford should position Edsel? The upper half of the medium price segment? Right, but then how would you apply cost-leadership strategy? What did Ford do? They wanted to position EDSEL below the Mercury brand as a supplementary brand. Now the problem was that the ford company had to move the Mercury brand upmarket -towards the upper half of the medium price segment -a position the brand took more than two decades to build in the consumer’s mind and was fairly successful. It was not an easy task to reposition the brand as it would confuse the consumers and alienate them.

Edsel was priced around in the range of Mercury and was actually fighting against Mercury. The lower-priced brand Ford’s top-end car was priced around $2499 and lowest priced Mercury was $2617. The low end of the Edsel was priced at around $2519. Edsel was forced to position itself within a non-existent price gap between Ford and Mercury, creating confusion among potential consumers.

Should people buy cheapest Edsel or nicest top-end Ford? The difference was too small. The top-end Edsel would be more expensive than the cheapest Mercury car which was already a well-known brand. The Edsel car was in direct competition with both the Ford and Mercury, both of which were run by ‘Bean Counters’. The financial analysts hated the competition from Edsel and they were looking for ways to dump the new car.

It appears that Edsel had messed up their positioning.

OPERATIONAL DIFFICULTIES

In the 1950s, most of the cars were made by Unibody construction rather than a traditional body-on-frame car as it made cars quieter, allowed the car to have a lower profile(sporty feel) and sleeker styling. To achieve this, a new plant had to be built as traditional assembly lines could not manage the new design. Robert McNamara, one of the bean counters, opposed setting up a separate plant for the new car as he felt that the Edsel’s projected sales of 150,000 to 2,00,000 did not justify the cost of its own plant.

Edsel’s executives then explored the possibility of sharing Lincoln’s unibody as it would help in positioning the product between Mercury and Lincoln in the medium price market segment. But Robert McNamara refused it and allotted the spare capacity of Lincoln plant to Thunderbird car. Finally, the Edsel Car team was forced into sharing its basic body with Mercury and Ford platform. It meant that Edsel had to be positioned in the gap between Ford and Mercury rather than between Mercury and Lincoln. It was also one of the reasons behind Edsel’s positioning.

QUALITY

When the new Edsels arrived in the market, there was a shock in store for dealers and the first set of customers. The quality of the cars was awful. The dealers often received cars with missing parts or parts kept in the boot with a note explaining the way to assemble the component(s). The customers faced continuous maintenance problems with the new Edsel and soon the poor quality of Edsel spread like wildfire affecting the sales. As a new brand, it was important to get the right kind of word of mouth going. Unfortunately, Edsel made a mess of it.

The reasons for the poor quality were

  • Unlike other Ford’s products, Edsel did not have its own assembly unit. It was sharing Mercury’s production facilities. One of Robert McNamara’s ‘bean counter’ ran the Mercury facility. They never allowed Edsel Division’s QA personnel to check the new Edsels while it was being assembled.
  • The Mercury unit workers were uncomfortable to switch from one set of parts assembly and sequence to another set -They strongly felt that it disrupted their working rhythm and also created a lot of confusion about parts and components. This resulted in poorly fixed parts, missed out parts and mismatches.
  • The employees did not feel the ownership of Edsel vehicles — They took a little pride in their work of assembling the Edsel -The bean counter also did not encourage them as he felt that Edsel was competing directly against Mercury brand. This too affected the quality of Edsel cars.
  • The Edsel management tried to get as many models as possible to the new dealers at the time of launch and this created a lot of quality compromises.

DEALER NETWORK

Ford projected Edsel as a new brand and actively recruited new exclusive dealers. They wanted the dealers to see ‘Edsel’ as a ‘premium’ brand rather than a ford product. They were looking for dealers who were not used to the traditional Ford’s way of selling the cars. Also, the Ford team wanted new dealers in order to match a competitor dealer network.

By adding an exclusive dealer network for Edsel, Ford was going against its own well-established success formula of building the dealer network. When Ford launched the Mercury brand in 1939, it initially sold the brand through Ford-Lincoln franchise network. As they added new dealers, the network was called ‘Lincoln-Mercury-Ford’ dealer network. Then, after a decade, Mercury-Lincoln was split off from the Ford dealers network. It would have been a wiser decision if Edsel was sold through Mercury-Lincoln network as both of them shared the same unibody too.

Loyal Customers -Dealers play an important role in convincing customers and Ford’s existing dealers also had a long list of loyal customers with whom they had built a relationship over the years. Edsel’s executives failed to leverage the existing Ford’s network to sell the car. It is really a shocking one if we consider Edsel was originally conceived to retain their existing Ford upgraders.

Managing Edsel’s Quality Fiasco -Ford’s existing dealers would have easily managed Edsel’s quality problems and would have given confidence to the customers that the problem would be solved. They had sufficient knowledge and experience in handling the Ford products and also had contacts with the people from Ford’s top management team. The new dealers, on the other hand, failed to pacify the customers as they themselves were in blind when they encountered problems with the Edsel. The mechanics of new dealers were not equipped and trained sufficiently to deal with the mechanical/electrical problems of the car and it affected the customer experience whereas the old dealers due to their vast experience would have solved those problems in quick time.

Don’t Sell, Offer Service -The Edsel’s dearth of value propositions would not have mattered in the case of old dealers as they would have differentiated the product by offering good quality service or providing a strong brand assurance backed by the Ford name.

RECESSION OF 1958

The year 1955 was the ‘Year of the Automobile ‘ as Seven million passenger cars were sold in America. Consumers of 1955 loved cars that were long, wide, lavishly decorated with chrome, liberally decorated with gadgets and equipped with powerful engines. They were not bothered about fuel economy. The Ford company initiated its new car design in 1955, based on the customer interests and market conditions prevailing at that time.

On September 1957, Ford launched Edsel car with the year 1955’s requirements. Within a few months, by January 1958, a recession called Eisenhower recession, an economic downturn took hold of America. Businesses collapsed -Unemployment increased -New house construction fell down -Oil prices increased(a major obstacle). Auto sales fell down drastically. The sales of all long and wide-bodied car faced a dramatic fall. Every big car of three major brands took a massive hit. So, it was not just ‘Edsel’ who bored the brunt. The year 1958 was called the ‘worst auto year’ since World War II. Though the economy recovered slowly, the recession forced consumers to look for cheaper and fuel-efficient cars. The market was suddenly behaving opposite to what Edsel was designed for. The recession gave a final death blow to the Edsel brand.

Edsel was unfortunately launched at a wrong time.

MOTIVATIONAL RESEARCH

In the mid-1950s, a new field of research called ‘Motivational Research’ was gaining popularity and Ford used it to define the required personality of the ‘Edsel’ car.

David Wallace, product marketing specialist of Edsel division used this research method to understand the consumers in-depth -Why people choose one brand of car over another? Why does he buy a car in the medium price field? Why people spend more on premium cars? and so on… The research’s purpose was to dig deep into an individual’s mind and find out the reasons.

Today, this sort of user research and market research is common with any major consumer product launch. It helps brands to take high stake decisions like what kind of product to be built and what kind of product not to be built. In Edsel’s time, the research was at its infancy and gave some unreliable insights to the design team.

Results of the research -The report said, “The Edsel has to be the smart car for young executives on his way up”. Lawrence R Samuel wrote “The car’s elegance and classiness the reason why junior grey flannel suiters would choose it over Pontiacs and Dodges(Too working class), Chevrolets(too boring) and the other Fords(Too brash). Edsel would go directly against the Oldsmobile, which the research had shown to be the current automobile choice of the adventurous man in the middle age”.

The problems with the ‘Motivational Research’

  • The research told about what people will need, want at that time(1955-period in which research happened) and not what customers will want three years or four years down the road.
  • David Wallace added ‘Middle-class family’ along with ‘younger executives’ and ‘middle-aged executives’ in his research report in hopes of driving a huge sales for Ford if the car targets a wider segment. Unfortunately, a product for everybody is a product for nobody. Customers could not understand for whom the car was and they themselves struggled to find reasons to buy the car.
  • Motivational research was not used to guide some of the crucial decisions like the positioning of the product, product choices, whether to build an exclusive dealer network or not, whether to share the body of Mercury brand or not. Our present research guides those decisions.
  • Motivational research focussed only on the styling and the personality of the car -even then, they didn’t show the styling of the car to customers and gauge their impression during the prototype stage.

Biased Research -In the 1950s, there was a view among a certain section of experts that ‘Motivational Research’ was done with the pre-defined notion of ‘sex’ appeal. Example -Motivational research said that we chew gums because we are frustrated breastfeeders -We use a cigarette lighter because we would like to express a desire for mastery and power connected to the idea of sexual potency. The experts accused that the researchers were interpreting the content in a way what they wanted to see, hear rather than what was needed. They felt it obviously affected Edsel’s design. People blamed that the front end of Edsel was intentionally designed to look like a Vagina to attract the male population and people widely thought that it was one of the reasons for the model’s failure.

Research done with preconceived notions will produce biased results. What we do now is open-minded research without any preconceived ideas.

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Image from Rodauthority.com

STYLING

One of the widely mentioned reasons for Edsel’s failure was its ‘Styling’ -Particularly, the horse shaped front grill.

One customer wrote about Edsel in one of the automobile websites(hagerty.com), “ Most people thought the car was way too ugly and looked too over the top even for the late 1950s. It screamed pretentious and gauche. It didn’t seem to correlate to say the quality of other high-end cars like the Cadillac. It was a Ford in an ugly dress. No one would have bought one of these Edsels for a statement of quality and refinement. Just like most businessmen didn’t wear bright checkered suits to work. The car stood out too much, It was bright but not classy”.

The reason why people hated styling was it was not only new and distinct from others, it didn’t offer any new value propositions. The weird look would have been a major selling point. Herman Miller’s Aeron chair was unusual and people hated the styling but as customers realised the utility value of the product they began to love the product. Edsel, on the other hand, tried to sell the product only through styling.

The Chief Stylist -Roy Brown was the Head Stylist for Edsel car and he had 19 years prior experience with a host of successful product launches under his name.

The Brief -The brief given to Roy and his team was to design a car that is visually different from all other cars in the market. Roy believed that the front part of the body is like the face of a person and through its styling, he could bring the required personality of the car.

Conceptualisation -Roy looked at all the competitor cars and found that every car had a horizontal front end with round lights at the end of the grill. He then pondered why Edsel should not have vertical radiator instead of horizontal. He felt that the vertical grill would help in recognizing the car at a glance even from a block away.

The Benchmarks -Roy remembered Lasalle Cadillac from the 1940s which had a beautiful vertical radiator grill in the front and went on to become a classic design. He then recollected Packard Cars, Nash Cars from the 1940s.

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Cadillac Lasalle -Image from Duffys.com
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Packard(1940)-Image from Car-from-UK.com

Roy firmly believed that vertical grill would solve the problem of distinct styling and went ahead with the design and development.

Is Edsel’s Vertical Grill Really Bad Looking? -In the meantime, One of Edsel’s design team member, Bill Schmidt left Ford and joined Packard. As he knew what Ford was planning to do, he came out with a similar styling concept for one of the Packard cars and showed it in 1956, Chicago Show. The car was named Packard Predictor and its external styling got wonderful reviews. People loved the styling. From the image, we could see that the front vertical grill looks almost similar to Ford Edsel.

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Packard Predictor Concept(1956)-Image from en.wheelsage.org

So, Roy’s direction was spot on. Edsel’s styling would not have been a major issue had the product was priced well, positioned well and filled with value propositions.

Below is a screenshot of some of the images from Roy Brown’s presentation of Edsel Development in the 1980s.

The Earlier Sketches

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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation

See below the front vertical grill -The original design.

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Image from Edsel.net
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation

In earlier sketches of Roy Brown(see above image), the vertical grill was slim and placed low. But his senior leaders felt it was too slim and too low and asked him to raise and widen the vertical grill. Thus it became less visually appealing. Design by committee spoils the outcome.

Clay Models -With one and two headlights and modified grill.

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Image From Edsel.net
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation

The horizontal wraparounds were good looking by themselves but when combined with vertical grill and other elements in the front end of the car, it was a kind of mayhem with each one trying to grab attention. Too many elements without any visual hierarchy to guide the eye.

Side View Exploration

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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation

Back End -Exploration

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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation
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Screenshot from Roy Brown’s Presentation

As Edsel was forced to conform to existing Ford and Mercury platforms, the designers had to make compromises in exterior styling and also in designing the interiors.

TELE-TOUCH TRANSMISSION

The best user experience is in small details. If you are a consumer-oriented company, you would be focusing even on a small customer touch point and try to provide a delightful experience.

Ford was promoting the “Tele-Touch Transmission” as the foremost innovation.

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Unfortunately, the gear shifting transmission is kept at a traditional location of the horn button — Users inadvertently shifted gears when the intention was to sound the horn — The system was not good for driving in streets. Teletouch too had overload problems with the electric motor.

The Teletouch control unit was mounted down low on the side of the transmission. There it was exposed to water and road salt, making it prone to failure.

PROTOTYPE AND TESTING

A product’s success lies in “Prototyping” and “testing”. Whatever assumptions, ideas, insights we have got could be validated by some form of prototyping and testing with a small set of actual users. A prototype could be an inexpensive model, scaled down version, to help real customers to understand the design or solution. Testing with real users helps us to optimise the design, remove low-value proposition features, enhance good value propositions and get what customers think and feel about the product.

  • Ford did not “Test Market” any prototypes with potential “Real Buyers” until vehicles had been fully designed, new dealers were established. Prototype testing would have solved some of the problems associated with “Value Propositions”. Test marketing with actual customers would have shown whether Edsel was the right car for that time.
  • When consumers were looking for cheaper models, Ford’s first launch was most expensive, top of the line models. Launching a top end car would have been fine in 1955, as the favourable economic conditions prevailed. In 1957, it would have been wise to start with cheaper models to encourage people to buy. Prototype testing would have guided them.
  • Every brand launched new cars in the month of November. When Edsel was launched in September, it was competing with 1957 models with the discounted price before next year models pushed into the showroom.

PARADOX OF CHOICE

More the choices, worse the user experience. Design Thinking advocates fewer choices for the customer.

“As the number of options increases, the costs, in time and effort, of gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increase. It increases our cognitive load. People prefer other loads than cognitive load.” writes Schwartz. “The level of certainty, people have about their choice decreases. And the anticipation that they will regret their choice increases.”

Ford Edsel had 18 models in 90 color combinations to confuse consumers — Ranger, Pacer, Corsair, Citation — 2 to 4 door-Hardtop — sedan -wagon -convertibles — 6 or 9 passengers — People had a tough time in differentiating a top line model, lavishly equipped, 345 hp “Citation model” and base, with shorter wheelbase, 303 hp “Ranger” model. This is in addition to Mercury brand low-end models and top-end Ford models. The prices confused the customers and made them indecisive. Edsel’s options were taking customers away from the Ford family.

CONCLUSION

One of the main reasons for Edsel’s failure was unprecedented “Pre-Publicity” — Self-assured advertising — creating unrealistic expectations. Creating unreal expectations was the first step for failure.

Ford learnt a lot from “Edsel’s Failure” and they became “Customer Centric”. Edsel’s failure was one of the main reasons for “Mustang” success.

References — Ford Edsel Wikipedia, Richard Feloni-Businessinsider.com, Edsel Story-Youtube, Jame Page Deaton-HowStuffWorks, Edsel.com, Tony and Michele Hamer-thoughtco.com, Hagerty.com, Play to Win by AG Lafley, What Great Brands do by Denise Lee, Paradox of Choice by Schwartz, The Business Adventures by John Brooks, Edsel.net, WHY THE EDSEL LAID AN EGG: Motivational Research vs. the Reality Principle by S. I. HAYAKAWA, Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel By Thomas E. Bonsall, Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America By Lawrence R. Samuel, EDSEL HISTORY — Meet the men that made it happen-Youtube Video uploaded by Kris Trexler, IACOCCA -An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca,The American Dream-U.S History in Philschatz.com(Data about 1960 market conditions, baby boomers are from this website), An article of Consumerism and Anti-consumerism in America in the 1960s by Susana Yepes in ‘Boston University’ website.

Written by

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com