A Marketing Flop and What to Learn from It

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Last week on Facebook Wendy “outed” the first car I owned when I was a sweet, petite, high school student. Unlike Wendy’s first car, a perky ’57 MGA convertible, I drove…an Edsel.

Yes, the car with such a bad reputation that, when you look it up in the dictionary, one of its definition is “a poor or unsuccessful product, especially if vigorously promoted.” In my defense, the vehicle was our family’s car until my father purchased a new one and he dumped the embarrassing Edsel on me. I wondered if I could drive into the school parking lot in the dark of night, sleep in the boat-sized car, and then drift into the school building early enough for my classmates not to connect me with the Edsel.

For those who don’t the car’s history, here’s a primer.

The Ford Motor Company created the Edsel amid a muscular marketing campaign, proclaiming it to be an “entirely new kind of car.” The day it was presented to the public, “E Day,” on September 4, 1957, the windows of the dealerships were papered shut. The only way to view the car was to stand in a line that snaked around the block, with a few people admitted at a time. After a massive campaign that included multi-page “teaser” ads in major national magazines, 2.5 million Americans poured into Edsel dealerships.Edsel-450

Much to everyone’s surprise the car looked…average. Like any other car. Except for the silly, horsecollar-shaped front grill.

The car truly was innovative, offering design features never seen before, and some we’ve come to expect in our vehicles today. The massive list included:

  • a rolling-dome speedometer
  • warning lights for such conditions as low oil level, parking brake engaged, and engine overheating
  • push-button Teletouch transmission shifting system in the center of the steering wheel
  • ergonomically designed controls for the driver
  • self-adjusting brakes
  • safety features such as seat belts and child-proof rear door locks that could only be opened with the key

But the public had come to expect something never seen before, startling and beyond imagining. A pancake-flipping, make-your-bed-in-the-morning and drive itself sort of car. The Edsel couldn’t live up to the hype. It was short-lived, from 1957-1960.

What can we learn from the Edsel boondoggle?

One of the most stunning aspects of the Edsel story is that Ford had no idea the car’s sales would be lackluster. Instead, they were anticipating a booming success. They did research on what the public wanted when they started to design the car, but I’ve found no evidence they asked for feedback during the process. Instead, they seem to have made decisions based on what their gut said was right.

For example, they did extensive polling on a name for the car, but when it came down to the final choice, the results were inconclusive so an executive went with “Edsel.” The name of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel is a clunky word, not one that causes the potential purchaser to think about a smooth-riding, debonair car to coast around town in. Even Henry Ford II objected to its use. By the way, some of the other names under consideration were Citation, Corsair, Pacer, and Ranger.

Lesson: Consider what a title or name tells a potential buyer to expect from your product. Make sure the title projects the right image. Survey potential users and then pay attention to what they tell you. Don’t make decisions in a closet and pop out of it with product in hand, never having ascertained if you were assembling the most attractive item possible.

Ford also misjudged what the public would pay for the car. To own the automobile with all the options cost so much that interested buyers, on hearing the price, turned around and walked out of the dealership in search of a more affordable automobile. Ford hadn’t asked the consumer what he would pay for a car with the Edsel’s features.

Lesson: We all know consumers are price sensitive. While the market will bear high prices for significant innovation, the question always is, Will the consumer think he will get his money’s worth with my product?Asking would be a good way to find out.

The Edsel came off the production lines at a time when consumers were thinking about smaller, fuel-efficient cars. The Volkswagen Beetle was gaining in popularity. The Edsel, on the other hand, was a much larger car, required premium gasoline, and was fuel-inefficient. The right car at the wrong time.

Lesson: This one is tricky because, when Ford started to develop the Edsel in 1955, its size and other characteristics were what customers wanted. But it took until 1957 to release the first models. Tastes had changed, and a recession had hit. Perhaps the best lesson we can gain is to assume that a product will need to be adjusted if it takes a long time to produce. Keeping up with changing tastes and being flexible is paramount, especially in our rapidly changing world.

Design oddities also created challenges for the Edsel. The push button transmission confused drivers because it was located where they used to find the car’s horn. The driver who meant to tap his horn could actually ask the car to go in reverse. The station wagon’s rear turn signals were boomerang-shaped and, when seen from a distance, gave the impression the car was turning right rather than left and vice versa. And then there was the odd-shaped front grill design, which people had a lot of fun coming up with ways to describe–a toilet seat and the “O” of an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, being among them.

Lesson: Always remember that it’s one thing to be innovative, it’s another to be odd. Doing something different for the sake of being different seldom results in something good.

The hype, of course, has to be mentioned as a major fail. Huge amounts of marketing dollars went into a campaign based almost exclusively on promising the extraordinary and on being a teaser campaign.

Lesson: I’m personally weary of the hype promos we see online: Webinar ads promising that, if we attend, we’ll learn the 5 Vital Ways to Kickstart Our Social Media; the Must-Know Secrets to Writing a Bestseller, etc. Stop the hype and make promises you can fulfill.

After examining the reasons the Edsel failed, I think it’s only fair to say that our family owned a 1959 model, and many of the first year’s oddities had been adjusted. It was a great car to drive, and mine happened to be a pretty turquoise. I kind of liked it, just as I would have liked an odd but interesting cousin. I would have been further consoled if my father had let me sell the car when I purchased my spunky red 1964 Ford Mustang. But, no, he had decided to give the Edsel to his sister, who was a car collector. Insult to injury.

What other products can you think of that failed, in part, because they were over-hyped? The Susan B. Anthony coin, for example? How can you be smarter about the book you’re writing or the brand you’re creating, based on the Edsel failure?

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