Ford's VP of communications Ray Day is tasked with keeping the company's current momentum going in the midst of a tough year for the US auto industry.
Of the three US automakers, the limelight this year has been kindest to Ford. After completing the worst year in the company's history in 2008, Ford has worked to transform the media narrative around its brand from one of survival to one about surpassing expectations.
The positive media blitz is paying off. The communications team's efforts, combined with bankruptcy filings earlier this year at its rivals, GM and Chrysler, helped bring customers into Ford dealerships. For the first time since 1995, Ford has gained retail market share in 10 of the past 11 months. Its favorable opinion and purchase consideration among consumers has also risen in the past year, according to Ford's internal metrics and Consumer Reports.
"In Ford's case, this is the all-time communications dream," says CEO Alan Mulally. "This is a transformation of a corporation that includes its product lines, the production system, the globalness of the business. We are transforming what everybody knows Ford is about and what it stands for."
Mulally calls Ray Day, VP of global communications, a "business partner" who has helped navigate Ford through Congressional hearings and subsequent media scrutiny. This is likely because Day is hardly a newcomer to Ford. He has worked in its communications department for the past 20 years.
Day was a key strategist behind the company's decision to testify before Congress earlier this year in support of providing government money to rivals Chrysler and GM, says Mulally. Though Ford initially asked for aid, it changed course amid the hearings and announced it wouldn't need taxpayer funds.
"This has been an inflection point for us," Day recalls. "Earlier this year, it was clear that we needed to support the temporary funding for competition. But equally important, we needed to make it clear that Ford was in a different spot."
On September 1, Ford reorganized its marketing operation and made communications a standalone function that reports into the CEO, rather than into marketing. The driver for the restructuring was that CMO Jim Farley took on additional duties of operational leadership for Canada, Mexico, and South American business units.
"It was pretty clear at that point that integration between our two functions was where it needed to be, so it was the right time to make the change," Day says. "But there's been no change in the amount of time I spend with the CEO. I'd already been spending huge amounts of time with Alan."The "essence" of Ford
Even prior to the restructuring, Mulally says he considered communications to be "the essence" of a corporation because of its responsibility to inform all audiences about the business and its brands.
"Communications has always been one of the most important aspects of the corporation because of my expectations," Mulally says. "Ray is right there with all the business leaders. There are the product development people, the product people, and then there's Ray. Communications is right there - boom! It's an equal member of the team."
Ford's focus on communications isn't just talk. With the media glare already on the struggling auto sector, Ford has poured even more resources into communications to take full advantage of this attention. Day declines to give exact figures, but says Ford's PR spend is "very competitive" with other carmakers.
"In the past two years, we've increased the communications and PR budget by about 40%," he explains. "And with our agency partners, we have in essence doubled our people resources. We are serious and putting the money and resources behind it."
Day emphasizes the reason for putting more resources into communications wasn't because of the onslaught of negative media coverage surrounding the hearings, but rather to showcase "the incredible number of products we introduced into the marketplace."
Phil Nussel, AutomativeNews.com's managing editor, says it has worked.
"They've really done a great job of publicizing the fact that the company has stayed out of bankruptcy and also has a great product line," he notes. "Their real success has been placing stories in the right publication at the right time. They have had excellent coverage in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and those stories seem to set the agenda."
Unlike Chrysler and GM, adds Nussel, Ford has been able to retain customers, many of whom are grateful the automaker declined government money. Because Ford's new product line has been strong, its proof points have been supported with mostly positive reviews.
"There's still a perception gap, but that is being narrowed a lot," he explains.
This transformation, however, comes after several tumultuous years. In the latter part of last century, Ford faced criticism after Firestone tires installed on its models dangerously malfunctioned and were linked to hundreds of deaths. Its cars also trailed foreign competitors for reliability and fuel efficiency.
"We started to see an erosion in the sector itself and there was a perception gap on quality and fuel efficiency," Day acknowledges. "We knew that we had to get out even more aggressively and present the facts."
These facts include the newest quality ratings for its products, as well as increased fuel efficiency, he adds.
Then in a year when public rage against corporate indulgences intensified, the US auto industry found itself in one of the most memorable examples of excess when its CEOs took private jets to Washington, DC, to ask for taxpayer dollars. Mulally says Day was integral in fixing the PR debacle.
"You can imagine what those conversations around that decision were like," Mulally recalls. "We had to put that into perspective and explain to people why we flew and that it's part of the business."
One of Ford's goals is to be top of mind for consumers looking for small cars, while still retaining its equity with larger vehicles. In 2011, Ford will bring the compact C-Max to the US. The model was selling in Europe when Americans were still lining up for Ford's Eddie Bauer Explorer series.
"There will be more consistency in our brand going forward," Day says. "We like to call it 'one Ford' and it really starts with our products and product strategy."
Unlike its previous strategy of selling more efficient cars in other parts of the world, such as Europe, this new approach will now make the Ford product line relatively uniform across the globe. This has already begun with the company's recent campaigns promoting its compact Fiesta and hybrid Fusion models.
"It's a lot easier to operate with a common, consistent message globally and it's what the consumer expects," Day explains, adding that "reinvented" SUVs with higher fuel efficiency will continue to be a core element of Ford's portfolio.
For now, Ford has reset its trajectory and seems to be winning new admirers. But this good fortune is tenuous, Nussel warns.
"Let's not fool ourselves; they have a long way to go yet," he says. "And if there's any spate of bad news around Ford, they're going to have some problems."
This is something of which Day is well aware. "We are headed in the right direction," he says, "but we have a long way to go and we're not declaring victory. We are aggressively communicating the Ford plan and the proof points of the plan."
Ford's main proof points:
Quality products that are reliable and fuel efficient
Showcasing Ford's complete family of products and its "best-in-class" ratings on safety and fuel efficiency. It also includes messaging around the overall Ford brand
Sound and healthy business outlook
Promoting Ford's financing plan that made it unnecessary for the company to take government money to get back to profitability
Initiatives to make the world a better place
Ford's efforts in energy independence and security improvement
Day's career history:
Ford, VP of global communications
Ford, executive director of global automotive operations communications
Ford, director of global product and The Americas communications
Ford, director of global product and North America product communications
Ford, manager of European communications