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New Generation of Young, Confident Single Women With Jobs and Ambition Are Prime Target of Fiesta Campaign


BEIJING -- Marketing executives at Ford Motor Co. call her "Mei," and she is critical to the success of the U.S. auto maker's strategy in China.

To Ford, Mei, which means "beautiful" in Chinese, represents the twenty-something, college-educated single women who form the bull's eye in its target market here for the Ford Fiesta. The compact hatchback is the first in a planned series of cars that the company has designed to sell, with minor variations, in markets around the world.

Connecting with Mei, who earns $880 to $1,500 a month and wants her first car, and persuading her to buy a Fiesta, are increasingly important missions for Ford, as the it tries to offset sagging sales in North America. By unit sales, China is the world's second-largest vehicle market after the U.S., and Ford has struggled here recently.

While overall passenger-vehicle sales in China rose nearly 7% last year, sales of Ford brand cars fell 10%, according to J.D. Power & Associates. A Ford spokeswoman says the company's sales decline wasn't as sharp as that.

Ford says it plans to roll out an ad campaign for the Fiesta next month that will be aimed at Mei and her peers. It will largely bypass television and newspapers to catch them where they spend much of their time: online and reading lifestyle magazines.

"The major communications tool will be the Internet," says Nigel Harris, vice president of marketing and sales for Ford in China. A big focus, he says, will be social-networking sites popular with young Chinese adults. The campaign will also use cellphone text messages.

The content of the ads, Mr. Harris says, will be "young, bold and sexy," aiming to be edgy "without offending." The idea is to attract a generation of confident, independent and optimistic women. Ads will feature attractive men and women, bright colors and hip music. A separate set of ads, focused on the Fiesta's safety features, will be aimed at Mei's parents, who would likely be involved in her car purchase, Mr. Harris says.

Ford, which is working with ad agency JWT, a unit of London-based WPP, to put the final touches on the campaign, declined to be more specific about the content.

But Ford executives say the research they did -- especially an "immersion event," in which senior executives spent an afternoon with a group of women representing Mei -- encouraged them to be more daring in the ads than they might have been.

Another important conclusion: that the idea of a global car model will work. That was important for Ford's global strategy, which is built on the idea of selling car models world-wide in an effort to save on development costs and reap economies of scale in manufacturing.

Ford's immersion event was designed to put senior Ford and JWT executives in direct contact with their desired customers. They spent an afternoon with 15 twenty-something women in Beijing, watching them shop and looking for clues about their lives, attitudes and aspirations.

The women in the group were style-conscious and outspoken. Tina Fan, who works for a Japanese conglomerate in Beijing, wore a cropped black velvet jacket, black stockings and high-heeled silk shoes. She said she believes she has "unlimited potential," and hopes to be running her own business in five years. "I think I can handle all the issues in my life by myself," she says.

The women pointed to a mix of fashion influences, some very adult, others more adolescent. Grace Ding, an accountant, brought along pictures that she said illustrated her fashion sense -- images of a Burberry handbag, Chanel shoes and Bathing Ape accessories.

All the women spoke of spending long stretches of time on the Internet. Ms. Fan estimated that she's online 12 hours a day and says that Web sites are her "main source of information and inspiration."

Bessie Wu, a travel agent from Yunnan in southwestern China, says, "I like to show off, to really let my hair down and dance." Ms. Wu, who says she is a free spirit who would one day like to live abroad, added: "I don't have a problem wearing revealing outfits. If someone says I'm sexy, I think it's a compliment."

Some conclusions from Ford's research were quite specific: It found Chinese consumers want more options than their European counterparts. "It's a way to personalize the vehicle," says Thomas Brewer, Ford's Asia regional vice president for marketing, sales and service. In China, Ford will offer four color combinations on the Fiesta, compared with two in Europe.

Mr. Brewer says the session with the young women provided a personal touchstone for the Ford executives who participated. "It's helped us zero in and make some tough decisions we might not have made otherwise" to push the envelope toward a more brash and sexy approach, he adds.

Write to Gordon Fairclough at [email protected]

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page B9
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