DETROIT (May 9, 2001)—Internet browsers soon may be able to chat with top Ford Motor Co. executives online. It's just one of the ways the No. 2 automaker hopes to develop closer relationships with people worldwide and boost its corporate image.
"We want to provide an opportunity for people to discuss issues that are important to them, which even go beyond our products and services," says Michael Wright, Trustmark marketing manager.
Trustmark is Ford's corporate brand, which is intended to build confidence in the company, its products and services. But some of the confidence in the Ford Trustmark was eroded by last year's Firestone tire problems on Ford Explorers, and by recent product launches that were marred by recalls and repairs.
Rebuilding Trustmark falls to Mr. Wright, who joined Ford in November, and Jan Klug, who became vice president of global marketing March 1.
Ford spent $53.9 million in corporate advertising last year, compared with $49.1 in 1999. This year's budget will be in the $50 million range, Wright says.
But the company won't do a traditional corporate advertising campaign this year, with media such as TV, print and radio. Instead, Ford will focus on programs such as the executive Internet dialogue on its Ford.com site to build trust.
"The role of Trustmark is to humanize the company," Mr. Wright said, adding that Ford's top executives and other employees could help do that. The company hasn't made a final decision on the Internet plan and wouldn't say when it might start.
Ford also continues to form partnerships to help the environment. The company in January began a partnership with National Geographic magazine that encourages people to protect the Earth. Ford has since joined with the National Park Foundation to seek solutions for congestion, pollution and other problems.
Those partnerships build trust, Mr. Wright said, because "people see that it's a true commitment and not just words. We could do a campaign and say we really believe that we ought to clean up the environment or we can go clean up the environment, and people witness that."
Lincoln-Mercury dealer Jack Straub agrees with the strategy.
"You want to show what the company is doing, like technology advances and benefiting the environment, that consumers might not necessarily be aware of," said Mr. Straub, whose dealership is in Keyport, N.J. "Anything we can do on a grassroots level is perceived as much more sincere than just doing advertising."
Ford has been trying to set its Trustmark program on the right course in the United States, with hopes of rolling it out globally.
"The corporate message varies market by market," Mr. Wright said. "We are working with the other folks to decide what kind of value does the corporate message add? Because at the end of the day, if this doesn't help the brands do their job, then it's not worth doing."
Ford plans to launch the next phase of Trustmark in September at the Frankfurt auto show, and then in England. But look for Ford's big Trustmark splash in 2003, when the company celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Said Mr. Wright: "That's an opportunity for us right there to say what are we about: a big portfolio of tremendous brands."
Ms. Cantwell writes for Automotive News,a sister publication of Tire Business.