I’ve been watching the automotive space closely over the last few years, observing the different strategies play out as new entrants and incumbents plot a path from filthy fuels to a new digital paradigm.
Pure plays have an easy job. They don’t have $BNs of leveraged debt against huge operations fit for ICE production and consumers split between progressives and laggards, both wanting to hear respective commitments, either to a bold ambition for the digital automotive future or to the warm soothing, retrogressive cuddle for those still romancing fossil fuel’s legacy.
The best example of an incumbent’s transformation strategy you might snap to would be Volvo’s offshoot Polestar with their surgical brand storytelling and product distinctiveness, rooted first in their sale to Chinese owners with access to leading EV tech and economies of scale, but expressed through a dealer-less, dedicated brand that has been given the full apple treatment where every curve and contour has been pored over by poloneck’d designers and the brand DNA executed to the letter in every word, image and gesture. It’s working and feels in the EU at least that despite having launched way after Nissan and Renault had credible production EVs in market, the Polestar feels as pure-play as Tesla and may start in fact start eating it’s lunch as model Y’s become as ubiquitous as the 90’s Ford Focus.
But the marque I’ve enjoyed watching the most, scrapping it out between their own internal demons and a future that wants to drag it forward to the present is Ford.
When the Mustang Mach E launched you knew the ambition and commitment was there to make this work. If you want to really change, you have to show a degree of irreverence to the things your old identity holds most precious. You have to be a true iconoclast and eat your own. So when Ford took their most hairy-chested muscular icons and stuffed a battery under its’ bonnet, you knew a fundamental change had occurred. You knew they were serious about performing a pivot from the ground up and that the new guard had successfully usurped the old.
It’s a lesson we’ve seen taught again and again as industries have digitised over the last few decades. You have to get back to fundamentals and then build things up again from ground zero, not try to change by choosing new words or narratives that try to wrestle awkward realities into relevance by pasting over the cracks that keep forming. The more of the old you cling to, the more you hobble your forward momentum.
Ford’s product brands are so strong, so this strategy is a perfect fit. Their global best selling van, the Transit is undergoing a huge push to EV and will most likely work (I used to drive them for my student job and they always felt ‘just right’). And the case for electrifying commercial fleets is in true no-brainer territory.
But the stroke of genius that I have enjoyed the most from Ford is their Ford F150 Lightning.
ICE incumbents have always chipped aways at the EV’s achilles heel: range. And while range has improved significantly in EV’s of late, it’s still the number one conundrum for would-be adopters and dinner party conversations. Range is a brilliant target to sew doubt in the minds and hearts of prospect customers. There are clearly some practical issues with fuelling on the move, we all know that and they’re all easily surmountable. But as we know from the Freud-dude, human’s aren’t practical beings, we’re driven by desires and instincts we barely understand ourselves, let alone control. “Range anxiety” is exactly that, a neurotic emotional response to a manageable practical problem. But more than that “range anxiety” emotionally emasculates and thwarts the apparent freedoms and agency that the car has come to symbolise and which we put so much value on in western societies. Every car ad over the last 100 years has just been a replay of this symbol, the man finds his power, potential and freedom through a car, not as a mass of atoms but as a symbol (also the reason why those ads are also very boring and predictable).
So the range battle has been raging for ages. But we’re long past the point where it even matters. With 200+ miles range on most modern EVs, you’d have to have an elephant’s bladder to drive longer without a comfort break, providing ample time to recharge.
But perhaps the enemies of EV’s have grown complacent, clinging on to range as its’ only source of debilitating kryptonite.
Enter the Ford F150 Lighting. Yes, it’s standard battery claims 200 miles. But the F150 Lightning isn’t going to invite the petrol heads into the ring to play the usual game of gentleman’s fisty-cuffs. It’s got a new weapon parked up its sleeve.
It’s very easy to assume that freedom as expressed by the open road is the only key to the American psyche when it comes to vehicles as symbols. The open road as analogous to the American dream, the journey west to new possibilities and the ambitions that this has fuelled and realised over and over. Always moving on, always progressing towards a place that hope constructs in its’ vision. You can see how “range anxiety” corrupts this picture, interferes with its’ borderless flow. But this isn’t the only story that defines the American psyche. There are other stories, other symbols and other notions of freedom.
When the caravans heading west finally met their destination, (if they were lucky enough to get that far) they stopped moving. They laid down roots, homesteaded. They turned a patch of dust into a livelihood, a home, transforming meagre resource into subsistence on their own sweat and grit. They had to protect what they’d built, not relying on governments or organised enforcers to uphold law, but their own shotguns and steady hands to fire them at those who threatened their property. Freedom to roam is a defining aspect of the American legacy, but so too is freedom to live with minimal interference. That’s why US highways are full of oversized pick ups and SUVs, because one day they think they might need to load them up with beans and guns and head to the hills; even if you live on 5th Avenue. (I know this is all sounding a bit libertarian, it’s just a cartoon portrait for the sake of making the point)
So when the F150 Lighting launched at the Superbowl, they didn’t talk about range, they talked about powering your house with your car. Big, brash, bold American machismo at its’ mightiest. But this time not talking about how far and free, but how long you can survive on your own resources, free from external institutions. It’s like Ford were playing top trumps with Jeremy Clarkson and picked the “how long you can power your house with it?” stat instead of “range”, the Ford F150 Lightning, against a Lambourghini (crushed)
Other incumbent marques could learn al lot from Ford’s single mindedness. You can’t drag the past along with you while you’re trying to reinvent yourself for the future. At some point you have to grab the nettle and go for it. And then you need to show the world you mean business by showing you can blow up the past because you’ve realised it’s not precious, but is in fact a hindrance to future prospects.
Anyone involved in the green transition can learn some lessons here about how to take a left turn sometimes to find the fights you can’t lose, rather than focusing on the ones that are harder to win (the opposition will always try and drag you there for obvious reasons.)
At GGGGGGGGG we help companies taking these left turns when they realise they need to go off-script to stay on-path.