By Paul Eisenstein
Today’s Machining World Archives January 2007 Volume 03 Issue 01
It entered the world with the proverbial bang. But when the last Ford Taurus sedans rolled off the Atlanta assembly line in October, it was accompanied by little more than a whimper from thousands of workers losing their jobs.
The original 1986 Taurus saved Ford, which was in even worse shape than than it is now. Boasting a variety of innovative features, complimented by its trend-setting “jellybean” design, Taurus raced to the top of the U.S. sales charts, struggling to meet demand with two assembly plants running double shifts. It was, in fact, the last American product to top the passenger car list, now dominated by import sedans such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
While those Japanese nameplates remain perennial favorites, Taurus has, in recent years, survived only as a fleet car, dumped into daily rental duty or sold on the cheap to deal-focused corporate customers.
How could the mighty fall? One might ask that about an array of once-popular Ford products. Remember the Fairlane, Galaxy and Escort? Indeed, Escort’s replacement in the small car stratum, the Focus, has also seen its star dim, providing a metaphor for a lot that has gone wrong, not only at Ford, but the domestic auto industry overall.
The number two American automaker has shown a disconcerting tendency to launch exciting new products and then seemingly lose interest. By the time the plug was pulled on Taurus, the once-breakthrough sedan had evolved into a lackluster four-door woefully behind its competition in terms of design and technology. Focus has suffered the same cruel fate. While the automaker rolled out a dramatically improved version in Europe several years ago, we American motorists are being offered the same, tired subcompact Ford first rolled into U.S. showrooms in 1998.
In today’s competitive market, where buyers can choose from a record number of offerings, Ford’s laissez faire strategy helps explain its steadily dwindling market share and record losses. The automaker insists it is developing some “Bold Moves,” but it’s moving too slowly.
Okay, I expect a couple nasty phone calls or e-mails from the public relations department. They’ll rightly point to hot vehicles like the Fusion sedan and Lincoln Zephyr. These are both solid cars deserving kudos, but Zephyr typifies another plague which Ford – and its cross-town rivals – have brought upon their own houses. Lincoln’s entry-level sedan has received solid reviews since it debuted a year ago. So why is Ford eliminating the nameplate, especially after investing tens of millions of dollars on marketing the Zephyr badge? Actually, the car itself isn’t going away. It’s just being rechristened MKZ.
That, in itself, is one of the oddest branding strategies I’ve seen in three decades covering the auto industry. All new Lincolns – but, for some reason, not the Navigator – will get three-letter names. The MKX is a new crossover/utility, and a new flagship sedan will be dubbed MKS. Senior planners thought this would harken back to the legendary Lincoln Marks – such as the Continental Mark II – but in customer clinics, no one seems to get it. Potential customers call the renamed Zephyr the “Em-Kay-Zee,” not “Mark-Zee,” as Ford planned. Whoops.
Now, as I noted earlier, Ford hasn’t sinned alone. Among the Big Three, barely a half-dozen passenger car nameplates have been around continuously for at least two decades. None at Chrysler, a couple at General Motors, and only a few, including the Mustang and Crown Victoria at Ford. With rare exception, however, it takes a real disaster for Japanese makers to abandon brand names. So, year after year, Accord and Camry continue to build brand awareness and momentum, something worth millions in free, word-of-mouth marketing.
That loops back to Taurus. If you can’t keep a product current, it doesn’t matter what you call it. The Taurus brand name was demolished by neglect, and Ford is paying the price for letting a once-great product fade away.