People often ask me to give an example of a strategy I admire, and honestly I struggle.
Of course there are the usual suspects – Apple, Nike, blah blah blah – but such answers feel like cop-outs. As a supposed expert, I should have more obscure and surprising examples on the tip of my tongue, right?
Well, actually, not really. That’s the thing about really good strategy: it’s very rare. The brands everyone talks about are talked about for a reason; namely that they are the outliers who are operating with awesome strategy! Most of the other big-but-uncharismatic brands are operating with weak or even non-existent strategies. They’re successful, yes, for a variety of reasons. But they don’t offer instructive case studies on powerful strategic thinking.
Basically if a famous brand is strategically interesting, they quickly become a cliche precisely because they’re strategically interesting. I mean that’s the whole point right?
Anyway, because of this scarcity you can imagine my excitement when I stumble across a new strategic case study for my meagre library. And the other day I found a great one, courtesy of the car giant Ford – traditionally not anyone’s idea of a strategically radical brand, but who have recently edged their way into that hallowed territory.
In this essay I wanted to briefly explain their strategy to you, and then highlight some key characteristics it has which should be the hallmarks of any strategy.
Let’s get on with it.
In a nutshell 4 years ago Ford made a radical decision: to stop making cars. When I say “cars” here I mean ordinary passenger vehicles (hatchbacks, sedans, estates, etc.), which included huge sellers such as the Fiesta, the Focus, and the Fusion. Instead they chose to plough all of their energy into trucks and 4x4s (along with the odd sports car, which I’ll come on to in a bit).
Clearly this was a pretty big move – the world’s foremost car manufacturer simply decided to stop making them, even while they were still shifting hundreds of thousands of units.
The basic rationale behind this move was that ordinary cars have gradually been declining in popularity. You’ll no doubt have noticed that 4x4s and SUVs are far more prevalent on the roads now than ever before, and this is simply a result of the way that consumer tastes have been evolving. Part of Ford’s decision was motivated simply by a desire to get ahead of this trend.
However there was another level of subtlety at play here as well. You see formerly Ford were (like most other manufacturers) spreading themselves very thin, as they attempted to provide vehicles for every possible sector. This had two damaging results:
- It limited the amount of energy they were able to put into each product, thus lowering the quality and innovation
- It diluted their brand, stopping them from being “about” anything in the consumer’s eyes, other than “generic auto brand” (which is basically what they were)
By pulling the plug on cars altogether they have remedied these issues as follows:
- They’ve been able to invest the necessary time and creativity into making the Bronco and the F150, which have become untouchable in the respective off-roader and pickup truck markets (they’re simply way cooler and better performing than anything else that exists in those spaces)
- Their brand is now centred solely around (for want of a better term) “macho” cars, without being dragged down by boring stuff like the Fiesta. In addition to their 4x4s and trucks they also have the Mustang line, a brand which traditionally represents “muscle cards”, and hence is actually quite symbiotic with brands like the Bronco despite one being an off-roader and the other a sports car
In short Ford have managed to move from being arguably the most boring car brand in the world to one of the most exciting. They know what they’re for, they know what their job is, and they’re attacking it with more focus and creativity than anyone else: sewing up the fastest growing sectors of the market and building an aspirational brand to boot.
So successful was this move that competitors such as GM have decided to follow suit – but sorry lads, it’s too little too late.
Bottom line, this is a bloody great strategy.
Even if it hadn’t been wildly successful (which it has), it would still be great on a technical level because it has all the ingredients we’re looking for in a bold and clear strategic direction.
Let’s pull a couple of them out.
1. IT’S SIMPLE
First, this strategy is as simple as they come. We kill cars, we focus on trucks, 4x4s and muscle. Never mind “would the whole company be able to understand and get behind this”, a 3 year old could do it. I’m sure there are delicate subtleties under the surface, but all strategies should ultimately boil down to something this brutal and basic.
That’s how you drive confidence and action.
2. IT’S PRACTICAL
Next, note how this is not abstract or theoretical. There’s no “leverage synergies” or “uncover the incredible” or any waffly bullshit like that here. No the strategy actually involves them doing something – something totally unambiguous. There’s no way they could kid themselves that they were sort of doing it when they weren’t really. It’s binary. We kill the cars or we don’t. That’s it.
A strategy ultimately has to be an instruction; a directive to go and execute, not wish or aspiration.
3. IT HAS HEART AND PASSION
This strategy isn’t simply about slimming down operations, or getting greater focus (though all of that is true and welcome). It’s also about leaning in to something interesting and exciting, and giving the brand the license to start having fun.
Understand, the strategy would be nothing if it hadn’t directly resulted in completely bonkers and thrilling creations like the Bronco Raptor. I mean look at this thing. It isn’t an ordinary 4×4. It’s the most creative and innovative vehicle to hit the market since Tesla first came on the scene.
Ford are now no-longer hedging their bets. They are “unleashed” in one specific direction. And even though that direction has a lot of competition on paper, their ability to lean into it harder than anyone else has made that competition redundant.
4. ANYONE CAN “GET IT” FROM THE OUTSIDE
Finally the hallmark of any great strategy is whether a casual observer outside of the business would be able to “get it” intuitively. Can we tell what Ford are up to just by observing them?
In this case it’s clear that you can, without them needing to spell it out to you. Remember I haven’t read some internal memo or analysis from inside the company. I’m telling you all this from external perception; the perception of the market – which, lest we forget, is ultimately all that counts.
The truck-4×4-muscle trinity has such natural unity that it makes the overall Ford brand totally coherent. There’s no need for “marketing” here. No need for a big ad campaign. All the contradictions and complexities within the organisation have been resolved, creating something that just “makes sense”, and therefore has deep charisma.
Pretty remarkable when you consider that Ford was probably one of the least charismatic car brands of the past 40 years.
I hope that this little analysis has helped you visualise better some of the concepts we talk about in these essays.
I hope you can see that the level of analysis required is actually quite basic. Anyone could have done it. All the pertinent facts were common knowledge, requiring no special expertise or intelligence to discern.
What mattered instead was the structure of the strategy, and allowing a bit of red-blooded emotion and creativity to creep into the equation.
For the first time in my life, I really want a Ford.