Monday, April 02, 2007

Essay 1937



Ford Hopes DJ Signing Cranks Up Cred, Sales

Names Expedition after Funkmaster Flex, Eyes Caddy’s Path to Success

By Jean Halliday

DETROIT – Ford’s got escalade envy. The automaker has been watching the sales escalation of GM’s Escalade, which has become the ride of choice for big-name rappers, professional athletes and hip-hop trendsetters. It wants those influencers driving its SUVs too -- and it’s starting with Funkmaster Flex.

Ford’s hoping to co-opt his cool by introducing editions of its Expedition and Mustang named after the DJ, as well as ditching the Fairlane name for its upcoming concept crossover vehicle and redubbing it Flex. (There will also be a limited-edition Funkmaster Flex version of the Flex). The DJ told Advertising Age he advised Ford that the name Fairlane name suggests a soccer-mom-mobile instead of the “urban vehicle” it is. “So when they asked if they could call it that, I was cool,” he said.

The move aims to win Ford more of the urban street cred owned by Escalade. The Cadillac SUV has been featured in numerous rap videos, popped up in song lyrics by everyone from Jay-Z to J. Lo, and was once piloted onstage by Ludacris at the MTV Video Music Awards.

That limelight led younger consumers to covet the brand once driven by doddering grandfathers. Some 19% of Escalade buyers are black, according to USA Today, compared to 6.5% for the total Cadillac brand. And the average age of consumers who say they would someday like to buy an Escalade is 27. Compare that to the average age of 48 for Ford Motor Co.’s Expedition, as reported by CNW Marketing Research.

In January and February, Ford sold 13,644 Expeditions, or 8.2% more than during the same period a year ago. By comparison, GM sold 4,826—or 15% more—of its Escalade model during that time, though its sticker price starts at $20,000 higher.

In addition to the new models, Ford will be the main sponsor of the second round of “Car Wars,” which is hosted by the DJ and hits cable’s ESPN2 in late May as a weekly, six-episode reality series in which specialists from around the U.S. will trick out 2007 Ford Expedition SUVs.

Funkmaster Flex, who has solidified his car-guru reputation with his six-year-old “Custom Car and Bike Show” tour, will also appear in a Ford Expedition spot to air during the show, created by Uniworld Group, New York. The first seven-week installment of “Car Wars” started yesterday and is backed by BP’s Castrol Syntec motor oil.

The 2008 Expedition Funkmaster Flex Edition will be unveiled by the DJ at the New York Auto Show this week. The automaker, which once told consumers they could have any color as long as it was black, is offering the Flex Edition in a unique red-and-black paint scheme with orange pinstripes. The version of the Ford Mustang will also carry a black-and-red color scheme, plus a six-cylinder engine that will produce more horsepower than Ford’s standard V-6 Mustang thanks to a special air-intake system, Funkmaster Flex said.

Although Mark Perry, multicultural marketing manager for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury, wouldn’t confirm the co-branded Mustang or Flex name, he hinted more Funkmaster Flex Fords could be coming. “We’ll march down the model line and see where he fits.” An executive close to the automaker said Ford’s research of the Flex name tested very well.

Funkmaster Flex’s main demographic is men in their early 20s to late 30s, and the celeb “brings coolness to the line,” Mr. Perry said. CNW President Art Spinella said the affinity of hip-hop urban males often trickles down to younger people in the suburbs.

What might be on the Expedition’s side is price. The Ford SUV starts at $29,995, a bit more affordable than the Cadillac Escalade, which starts at $54,000. Even so, most 25-year-olds aren’t likely to shell that out to buy the Ford, said Jeff Schuster, an exec director of auto consultant J.D. Power & Associates. Ford’s co-branded SUV can “create more of an image and awareness” among younger buyers, he added.

But that may just be the point. “Ford is doing this not for sales but for image,” said Mr. Spinella. A lot of 20-something males are buying used Cadillac Escalades to customize, especially in urban markets, he said. A used Escalade stayed on the lot for 12 days in Chicago and eight days in Los Angeles in the first quarter of 2007, compared to 39 days in Chicago and 32 days in L.A. for the Expedition, CNW data showed.

He added that virtually the only buzz the Ford brand gets among people under 30 is for its popular F-150 full-size pickup. Younger people perceive the brand as stodgy. “Ford needs to do something to get the attention of a significantly younger audience.”

But is Funkmaster Flex the one to do it? The Escalade was pretty much “discovered” on its own by the urban audience without a blatant association with a single celebrity. And then there’s the suggestion that Funkmaster Flex may be too mainstream to carry the same urban credentials as Escalade’s elite.

“Absolutely not,” said Ford’s Mr. Perry. “He crosses over very well, and that’s part of the attraction. He’s multicultural.”

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