What was Ford’s Alan Mulally thinking?

Unless you are selling talking beer openers or donuts, comparing your product to Homer Simpson defies conventional wisdom. When your product is a slow-selling car, your actions are certain to leave people saying, “D’oh!”

Yet, this is exactly what Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally did recently. He wasn’t subtle; in a public speech he projected an image of Homer over a picture of Ford’s Taurus sedan while being critical of the design and talking up future models as much better. We can be pretty sure that this will not rally sales of the Taurus over the coming months, so has Mulally gone mad or is he actually smart?

Even big company CEOs do stupid things, but one does not get to be CEO by being stupid, so what could he hope to accomplish? I’ll leave the snarky car comments to Brock Yates, but the current Taurus is an unexceptional automobile in nearly every respect. Mulally knows it, the car-buying public knows it, and Mulally knows the public knows it, so on one level he is merely stating the obvious, albeit in a way that was certain to generate headlines. This more than anything makes Mulally’s comments a bold move.

Conventional wisdom tells us to say nice things about our products up to the moment their replacement is announced. Then start talking about all the things the old product didn’t do but the new one does. Repeat for each new version. The risk software executives are trying to avoid is the cost of having to shred a bunch of CDs. Cars cost a lot more than CDs, so the stakes are much higher.

Mulally could do the conventional thing, but once the new Taurus is introduced his criticisms will appear self-serving and by association, his raves about the new Taurus will carry less credibility. By mocking the current Taurus now he is incurring a real current cost (delayed or lost sales of the current model) which gains him more credibility with regards to both the current model and, more importantly, the forthcoming model. The damage to the current model is basically calculated collateral damage in pursuit of greater success with the redesigned Taurus once it is introduced. Further, Mulally’s comments come early enough that he can take credit for influencing the design of the new model. The message is, “Not only is the new Taurus going to be great, but it is going to be great because Ford understands why the current model sucks.”

Will it work? Who knows, but it is refreshing to see a company of Ford’s size rolling the dice this way. While the current Taurus is a poster child for a lack of innovation, and I don’t know how much better the new Taurus will be, I am glad to see that someone at Ford has remembered that there is more to selling cars than steel and rubber. Viewed retrospectively, good leadership is (a) getting people to follow you and (b) determining the right destination. Mulally gets good marks for the former. Time will reveal his grade for the latter.

Disclosure: I own a Homer Simpson talking beer opener and use it all the time.

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