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In Hard Times, Ford Seeks To Win Back Car Buyers

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In Hard Times, Ford Seeks To Win Back Car Buyers

Business

In Hard Times, Ford Seeks To Win Back Car Buyers

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. One of the big honors at the North American International Auto Show is Truck of the Year. This year's winner is the Ford F-150. It's a pickup favored by the construction industry. The award is a boost for Ford, but the company is still facing major challenges. The auto show started this week and our co-host, Robert Siegel, was there in Detroit. He's been talking with auto executives and today, one of Ford's key leaders.

ROBERT SIEGEL: At Ford, Mark Fields is in charge of an entire hemisphere, and he has a title worthy of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator. He is president of the Americas. Ford's message at the auto show in this season of distress? Well, Mark Fields says, it's simple.

Mr. MARK FIELDS (President of the Americas, Ford Motor Company): Probably can't do it in a sentence, but it's a pretty simple message. We want to talk about and communicate how we're accelerating our electrification plans for a number of our products. We want to talk about how we're developing and delivering affordable fuel economy for millions, and we want to show how we are strengthening our car lineup with our new Taurus.

SIEGEL: I looked at the F-150. It's out on the floor, and one message of that particular vehicle is, those really high gasoline prices of 2008, it's a one-off problem. They came, they went, don't worry about it. Look at a pickup truck and it says, business is booming in America. Construction and landscape gardening are going high. People need pickups. It just doesn't sound right to me. It doesn't sound true to me.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, the message that - we're actually not communicating that message here. What we're communicating as a corporation is that what's very important is - truck leadership is very important, but also, at the same time, balancing our product portfolio with smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. At the same time, the truck segment still remains one of the largest segments in the industry.

The difference in the truck segment now than it was a year ago is most buyers who are buying a truck are doing so because they use it for work. It's a tool. It needs to perform certain functions for them, and our new F-150 is the most capable out there in terms of the tool that those folks need, and it has unsurpassed fuel economy in the segment.

SIEGEL: But it sounds, therefore, that it's going to be a product that'll be hard hit by the recession.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, the segment overall has been hard hit. The segment overall is down anywhere between 25 and 30 percent. And obviously, it's very highly correlated to the construction industry, and we all know what's happened with housing prices and the construction business.

SIEGEL: I want you to try to explain something to me - which for me, is the overarching question that I bring to the auto show - which is, people say the U.S. auto industry has made significant improvements. Ford can cite its own improvements. I went out the other day, asked a couple of dozen people what they think about American cars. I heard exactly the same things that I've been hearing for the past 10 or 15 years. There isn't a perception of a great change that's taken place.

It's not as though you don't advertise a lot. I mean, you can hardly avoid auto ads. Where's the disconnect? Why aren't you convincing people of what you are convinced of?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, I think we have to be very realistic that perceptions take time to change. And the way you change that is be very disciplined and consistent in, you know, things like the products that you bring to market, the type of technology they have, the quality that they have, the fuel efficiency that they have. But we are out there every day asking customers to put us on their shopping list. And we know we're headed in the right direction but clearly, we can't dictate perception to the public. But in the same time, we can be very consistent and disciplined in getting that message out, and we're starting to see some improvementsin our brand metric.

SIEGEL: For the former Taurus owner - you're looking at one, actually.

Mr. FIELDS: Oh, thank you for your business.

SIEGEL: I'm a former Taurus owner, yes, it's been a while, but for the former Taurus owner who's owned a couple of Hondas or Toyotas since, how do you get that person back? I mean, they've been driving other cars. They may be happy with them. How do you win that person back to an American car?

Mr. FIELDS: The first way, I think, you win them back is as you set out to develop a new program, you have to have what's driving you the mantra that good is not good enough because we realize that we just can't be as good as a Toyota or a Honda in the car business. We have to be better, to give people, you know, the willingness to come and check us out. And that's why, when you look at vehicles like our new Fusio - most fuel-efficient midsize sedan in the segment - that we're introducing, the new Taurus out there, the fuel economy, the design, we have to be better than the competition.

SIEGEL: Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas. Thank you very much.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's our co-host, Robert Siegel, who's been reporting from Detroit this week.

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