Desperate Marketing: Lessons From the Ford Edsel

Catalant Staff

After referring to the Edsel in a prior post, I decided to delve into the Edsel story. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone developing a new product and determined to go about it rationally. While marketing requires a blend of creativity and logic, it’s not always easy to know which one should take the upper hand. In designing the Ford Edsel, released in 1957, Ford brought a great deal of market research and planning to the process. And yet the Edsel will be forever known as the Titanic of new product launches. It’s worth taking a look…

If You Design It, They Will Come

The Edsel was conceived to fill a hole in Ford’s portfolio and appeal to the “young professional family”.  Instead of starting from scratch, however, it was designed to be built on the framework of existing Ford models. Meaning many of the design differences were superficial. They rotated the ubiquitous horizontal grill 90 degrees, determined to unveil a new look. But that led to engineering issues (the grill does after all serve a function) which led to design changes. Eventually the grill was stretched to proportions that many people thought resembled a horse collar or toilet.They added other wiz bang features to differentiate the new line and many were legitimately innovative or at least harbingers of things to come: dashboard warning lights, seats with separate back and shoulder cushions, touch button functionality on the steering wheel (an unfortunate juxtaposition with the horn) and up to 90 color combinations (allowing for personalization). Unfortunately, these failed to turn the ugly duckling into a swan.

What Could They Have Done? 

When the vertical grill proved problematic, they could have gone back to the drawing board and considered other options. Or they could have developed a “concept car” (which was a thing) to show dealers and consumers before going into production. Much like the concept of developing a Minimally Viable Product in software, this approach aimed to reduce wasted time and expense. It’s likely that issues with the vertical grill would have been voiced.But Ford didn’t go that route. Its goal from the start was to surprise the public. Yes, the strategy was to design an exciting new line without customer input! So they forged on.

What’s In A Name?

Rationality was supposed to guide the naming process as well, but this logical approach was quickly derailed. According to Ford’s Director of Product Planning, David Wallace:

“It was to be the most perfectly conceived automobile the world had ever seen – every part of its planning guided by public opinion polls, motivational research, Science.”

(Automobile Quarterly, 1975, Vol. XIII, No. 2, “Naming the Edsel”)There was a clear naming spec that included:

“Elegance, dash, clean polysyllabic pronunciation, good positive and minimum negative association.”

And the initial letter should work as a hood ornament.(Source: History’s Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, Matt Stone, Preston Lerner, page 40, Motorbooks, Nov 30, 2012).Ford was pretty tireless in its search for a name. It hired a big agency who conducted a contest among its own employees, resulting in a list of 6,000 names. Random people were polled to discover associations with potential names. The list was refined down over several iterations to four finalists: Corsair, Pacer, Ranger and Citation. That’s when Ford skittered off-road. Not happy with any of them, the Chairman of the Board said something akin to “let’s just go with Edsel,” son of founder Henry Ford. So much for a rational process.Sometimes throwing darts works and Edsel was a bit of a dart. Note that it did not meet most of the criteria listed in the initial spec. And in fact, the name bombed in two ways. To the public, the name had no meaning and the sound of it didn’t help (sounds like pretzel? hard sell? diesel?). And within the company, those who remembered Edsel as a man of taste felt it did him a dishonor.

What could they have done?

It was not irrational to name the new car after a person (Lincoln, Ford, Chrysler). Perhaps the company could have given relevance to the name by playing up that the new line honored “the man who designed the Lincoln Continental,” although such a strategy could have backfired (the Edsel car was no Continental). More realistically, they could have simply kept with the rational process and chosen any one of the final four, each of which had passed several stages of evaluation. In fact, each was used as names for models within the Edsel line.Instead of asking ad agency employees for ideas, they could have asked dealers and recent car buyers to evaluate the final four against a clear set of criteria.Simply keeping it a surprise could have been Ford’s fatal flaw, especially given how long the process of launching a new car model takes. It’s easy to play 21st century quarterback and see the folly of Ford’s ways. In the end, the Edsel had real problems that had could not be solved with marketing or a name change (a nose job, maybe). There were issues with quality control on the production line as well as a shifting market and a bad economy that led to its demise in 1959 and a total loss for Ford of about $250 million.That same year, the “Think Small” ad for the VW Beetle was released. Enough said.