Suzy Deering, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Ford, speaks to WARC’s Stephen Whiteside for WARC Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about how the automotive giant is enhancing its e-commerce capabilities, drilling down into lifetime value, and advancing its sustainability agenda.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights:

  • Ford is taking a test-and-learn approach to e-commerce as it builds out various tools and capabilities that can assist consumers and its dealers.
  • As the auto marque now delivers a wide range of services to go along with its four-wheeled products, customer lifetime value is an increasingly important metric.
  • Sustainability is built into decision-making across the company, which has taken hard actions before focusing on this issue in its messaging.
You joined Ford as Global Chief Marketing officer in January 2021, having previously occupied a similar role at eBay. Did you find any e-commerce trends at work in the auto industry that you’d previously seen while working at an online marketplace?

Absolutely. One thing that's been really interesting is no matter where you've been on the journey as it relates to e-commerce, through the pandemic, it’s accelerated.

So whether you were at more of a standstill, hadn't truly embraced it, or, even in eBay's case, where we had been in the business for 25 years, we saw just incredible adoption, and also the expectations of customers became very different.

I think that, in the auto space, it's reimagining not just how we get into e-commerce; it's how do we take what customers are accustomed to – the ease in all of the other experiences that they have in digital – and apply that to the way in which we think about purchasing? Purchasing could be more than just the vehicle itself. It may be that it's services and accessories or other things.

So I think that the learnings are really helpful, and I think that there's a lot of commonality that we're all facing at the same time. Maybe now, with Ford, we can take a little bit of an advantage of the moment because, again, it's just such a great time for watching the adoption happen and shift so drastically.

Suzy Deering, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Ford

When you think about e-commerce, is it fair to say customer expectations aren’t just set by automakers as a group, but by online market leaders like eBay and Amazon?

That's exactly right. We would look at this very often at eBay.

For ordering a vehicle, Uber completely changed the expectations of something that had been around for so long. If you had told people that car-sharing was going to be a thing, and that you were going to, on an app, order a vehicle, and that was going to show up with somebody you didn't know, you would have been like, ‘What? That would make no sense.’ And yet now that's a [behavior] adoption that customers have.

With order online and pick-up in-store, as that has obviously continued to roll out over the last five years, think of, now, how dramatically it's changed. It’s almost commonplace because, now, with DoorDash and everything else, everything's coming to you. So, it's really fascinating at this stage in time where we are, the overall customer mindset, and what their expectations are.

What are Ford’s current priorities in the e-commerce space?

Right now it's a lot of test-and-learn. Part of the challenge, if you take e-commerce and you put it into purchasing a vehicle, is that it becomes a bit different than purchasing toothpaste or very everyday kinds of goods.

There's been others out there in the market that have done what we call more ‘hybrid’ solutions of purchasing. We, too, have embarked on that. You'll see this with reservations, where we're taking reservations for our new vehicles [online].

We started with our Mach-E launch. That's a customer who is an early adopter from a BEV [battery electric vehicle] standpoint and is very much a digital native, so their expectations are going to be very different.

We used this approach with Bronco [SUVs], too. We have a lot of learnings from Bronco. It's given us incredible insight into understanding what customers really want and what they're looking for. Because, before, the way that I always think of it is: That was lost information. They came to the dealership and they were looking for a particular vehicle, and if it wasn't there, they left, and we didn't know.

Now, we have captured incredible information as far as, again, what exactly customers are looking for. We've also applied that to our most recent Maverick launch and even the F150 Lightning launch.

 So, each step of the way, we're refining based off how we're understanding different customer needs. Our overall ambition is to really meet the customer where they are.

Some customers are going to want it completely digital – have the vehicle, order it, the dealer delivers it to your home. Others want the hybrid. You're seeing that with DTC. Many companies that started off direct-to-consumer in a digital space, now, all of a sudden, are in bricks and mortar, because there's this balance, very often, that a customer may want to really take advantage of.

So, it's a lot of learning. But, at the end of the day, the point for us is going to be: Make it easy. Just make it easy. Some of that's just us getting out of our own way, candidly, from an industry standpoint – not whether or not it's digital is going to make it easy. We've got to make our business process easier so that, then, we can adapt better within a digital environment.

What are some of the initial learnings about where e-commerce fits in the automotive consumer journey?

I think we're getting some early reads on that. Because if you look, again, there's this big difference between a Tesla and a BEV customer, where they had, very much, early adopters. The expectations of those customers are very different. Tesla still has locations that you can go and test drive or see a vehicle.

But, at the same time, even with us, there's a big difference in somebody who's always been an F150 truck owner. They know what to expect from an F150 truck. So, they may not need to come into the actual dealer to test drive it. It's probably going to be as simple as, ‘Tell me which is the new model, and let me order it, and have it delivered.’ Or, in a lot of cases, because of the relationship with the dealer within those markets, they may choose to go pick it up.

So I think, for us, it's going to be a lot of instinct as to what we see from how the customer’s engaging, and being able to meet that. That's why it's not going to be one-solution-fits-all. I think we're going to have to continue to find that right balance.

Especially as our cars are more and more connected, the way that we think about e-commerce shifts pretty dramatically, because it's not just about the purchase at that point; it's about the lifelong relationship that we're going to build with a customer that really creates more everyday interactions.

That, to me, is the next biggest pivot that we're going to start to see.

The auto industry has very long purchase cycles. How do you balance reaching people who may not be buying a car for several months or years with engaging the smaller group of in-market consumers?

The way to think about it a little differently is that there's the actual purchase of the metal, if you will – the vehicle – and that's always the space that we've really concentrated on in the industry. But now, as we start to make the shift into a true relationship with our customer, we're talking about everyday interactions with them.

Those everyday interactions are going to come from products and services, and the exchange that they have. If they're a Ford Credit customer, then they have an ongoing relationship with us, and we're interacting with them. If they're going into a dealer for maintenance, or we're proactively able to understand there may be a maintenance issue before the customer even realizes, we will be able to take on that interaction.

Again, you'll see us start to look and think about more from those everyday components. That is commerce. That is e-commerce. That's inside your vehicle, with all of the screens that are inside your actual vehicle itself and the content you're consuming; all of the services that you're adding; what you're doing online; and then, also, what you're doing through the FordPass app – simple things, even like phone-as-key or remote start, or, again, being able to purchase.

We pulled in merchandising globally, and we brought in a new leader for global merchandising, because we think that's another way to engage from a brand standpoint.

It's a very significant pivot. [Instead of] just thinking about that five-year journey to get somebody to purchase, it's an everyday interaction of understanding that relationship that we want to build with the customer.

What new metrics does this approach require?

This is where it gets very reminiscent of my past experience, especially from a Verizon standpoint, or even what we would look at at eBay. We would always talk about, at eBay, the ‘next-best action’: What were the next things that we knew that we would want to see, behavior-wise, with a customer, and think about cohorts?

There’s a very different way for us to think about that. Because cohorts would [previously] have been, basically, the audience that we would have sold to, how we would have attracted them, and then we would have been done once the vehicles got to the dealer.

Now, it's really rethinking: How do we leverage the cohorts? Same thing as it relates in wireless: In wireless, it wasn't just about ‘gross adds’ – which was new customers –it was about average revenue per customer, and how we are thinking about their services and the additional revenue stream that they're bringing in.

From a business standpoint, that's exactly where we're going to shift. You'll start to see things like building loyalty and understanding how many customers are churning out of the Ford brand, how are we engaging again, and creating more of that engagement that gives us more value.

Overall, the way that we would measure it, and you'll hear this a lot – and it's the shift that most have made from hardware to software – is the ‘lifetime value’ of the customer. Being able to truly understand that lifetime value will completely change the way in which we think about marketing.

How do you go about performance marketing and the brand building that can build that kind of relationship?

I think the big debate is: do you think of it as two separate things, or do you think of it as brand performance? I think that it's really about the two coming together. If you don't have a strong brand and you don't have a point of view, then it doesn't matter how far in the process you're going to be.

Think about how decisions are being made: customers are making decisions in less than five seconds as to whether they click or they engage with a brand. So I don't look at the two as fighting against each other; I actually look for more ways for us to complement that.

The biggest shift for us is to think that we've been talking to some of the most converted customers – which are our own customers – using channels that are very broad audience channels, and traditional channels.

As that shifts, that would be a massive shift for us. Now we can, through digital, pull that string through and talk to them differently than a net new customer that we want to attract to the Ford brand.

The other piece, I think, is very often brand [marketing] is thought of as being awareness-building. I don't need more awareness of Ford, Ford is a very well-known brand. We need people to think differently about Ford. Thinking differently about Ford is to think of us from an innovation standpoint. Think about, again, all those services I just talked about and mentioned.

So, that's the shift. We would be looking to make sure that there's certain select channels and dollars that are helping us really re-establish who Ford is. And, secondly, thinking about how we ensure that we're getting that right, everyday interaction with them, and utilizing performance not just from the sale of the car, but from the everyday service and experience side of things.

Is another part of the equation some kind of “marketing” aimed at Ford dealers, who are vital stakeholders, but may need help adapting at a time of profound transformation?

Yes, definitely. We believe one of our big assets is our dealers, because they're in our communities. They're representing the Ford brand. At the same time as we make these shifts, we've got to bring our dealers along. So, there's a lot of education.

We've got some systems that we're going to have to upgrade. Do not be mistaken; it's going to be a pretty significant lift, because a lot of this hasn't necessarily been top of the priority list until right now. For us to deliver that connection to the customer, we've got to rethink what's inside dealerships. We have technology that we've got to upgrade.

But the other piece is I think we've underutilized certain things, even The role of should be for education, both for our customers as well as for our dealers. So, all of that's being rethought.

The interaction model with the dealers becomes really different because of exactly what you stated. We're in this pretty significant pivot, not just from buying and meeting customer behaviors, but even going from ICE [internal combustion engines] to BEV. Going from combustible to electric is a pretty significant education that we take on with them.

One interesting example is Ford Blue Advantage, a digital marketplace for certified, pre-owned Ford vehicles that launched earlier this year in collaboration with your dealers. What was the strategic underpinning for this initiative?

We noticed that was a really phenomenal opportunity, because used-car purchasing is a very different approach. We also recognized that we had an opportunity to re-engage with dealers in a very different way; not just moving one side of the lot, if you will, but making sure that we were thinking of it from the other side of the lot, on the used side.

It's performed very well. Again, it's another place where we're getting really great learnings that can inform the other efforts that we're taking on. It's a really important connection point because, usually, the car would have passed hands to another customer and we would have lost that connectivity. Now, it's enabling us to connect more gracefully in that consumer transaction.

I think, from a brand perspective, it then still shows the power of the quality of our products and how we continue being able to pull that through, even if it’s a used purchase versus a new purchase.

What are some Ford’s priorities when it comes to sustainability?

This is a big one. And I'll start by saying it's at the core of who we are. That, to me, is the beautiful part of it. One of the things, as I was looking for my next role, [was that] it was really important to me to go to a company that had a really strong purpose. It was very clear that Ford has that.

Number one: It starts at the top. [Executive chairman] Bill Ford has been very, very diligent in this arena, as far as what his overall mission and goal would be for us as a business. When we made the announcement of Blue Oval City [a new electric vehicle campus] in Tennessee, you can see that pride of where we are truly living up to our purpose as a company. So I'd start there. Number one. It is absolutely essential.

Our brand purpose is to help build a better world. To help build a better world is very, very clear as to what that means, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams. We established that, over 118 years, we had so many proof points to back up that. It's not a forced fit for us; that's just inherent to who we are and it's in our DNA.

Now, we’re taking that and leveraging that in our decision-making: every decision we make has to live up to that purpose. Every decision. And there have been things that have been very difficult, because we've had to make a call that, maybe from a revenue standpoint, we were going to miss revenue [figures]. But that was okay. We're going to spend more in order to live up to the purpose.

The first place for us is at the DNA level, but it's now transforming in every aspect. We've made a commitment that, by 2030, we will be at least 40% [of sales from] electric from a US standpoint. We also have made a very, very big claim as it relates to being carbon neutral by 2050 company-wide.

These are all things that we don't just say; we don't just put the target out there. We're very aggressive as to hold ourselves very accountable to ensure that we're delivering on that.

Is sustainability a priority for consumers when making auto purchases?

This is interesting, because I think that most customers would say it matters to them, but maybe their actions and their behaviors aren't always matched up to that. We've seen that a lot.

One thing I will tell you that we can’t back away from is: We still have to stand for quality. We still have to stand for great products.

We've looked at the past numbers. Earlier with electric vehicles – before Tesla – when we would launch them, they were more ‘compliance’ vehicles. They weren't the ‘must-have’ vehicles that were out on the road. Instead, they were helping a very, very small group of customers meet a need, whether you're in California and you could get the ‘fast pass’ on the highway because you had an EV, or you just had it inherent in your DNA.

Now, we're seeing that shift. Quality and the overall look, feel and – obviously – services and experiences matter first. That still matters, number one. If you can do that, then deliver on what they believe is a real need, [that is number two]. For us to look to the future and protect the future, that's critical. It’s critical. But you can't miss the other two; you can't do it without that.

The last point I would make on that, too, is it’s a big shift, because you're looking at those younger generations who are way more worried about it.

We still believe that there's a lot more opportunity for us to think about [vehicle] autonomy, where that starts to go, and what role it plays in a very different ownership model that still holds up to the sustainability and environmental component – which, again, leads to our whole purpose, guiding every decision that we're making.

Ford’s “Built for America” campaign highlighted how electric vehicles are transforming the brand. How do you distill a very complex subject down into marketing messages?

Right now, you've seen some of the recent TV that we've put out, and video. But what we're also starting to do is a combination of: what we were saying publicly through our investor relations team; it's part of what our overall comms materials are to multiple different audiences; and, then, you'll even see it with our announcements.

Even the hybrid on Maverick [trucks] is a great statement. Again, that says we're still going to have ICE, but we're going to shift in this direction. So, I don't look at it as one campaign. It's how do we start pulling that through in everything that we're doing?

There are social channels where we still have a ton of opportunity to tell some of these other stories that are happening behind the scenes that people don't know. My candid opinion is that Ford has been doing this for a really long time; they just kept it a secret more than they needed to.

We've been very humble about our position and the steps that we're taking. And now it's like, ‘You know what? We don't need to be humble about it. We need to be super-proud, because we have to also educate customers along the way as to what it means.’

Acting first and talking later seems like a good way to avoid greenwashing.

That's exactly right. Greenwashing is a real thing. There's been a lot of brands that you can turn to, whether it was greenwashing or just the lack of authenticity to their message.

We have so much to back that up in our history, as far as the steps that we've taken. But it still takes us to remind ourselves, and hold ourselves accountable, so that we don't misstep and be tone-deaf as it relates to how we make that transition.

As a global brand, how do you decide on the markets where sustainability should play a central role in communications?

It moves at the market. If you're in Europe, they're way further ahead than the US. If you're in China, from a digital standpoint and from an electric standpoint, they're further advanced as it relates to what the customers’ expectations are.

So, we go into each market and we ensure that we are being very pointed in knowing who those customers are, and where we are from a legislation standpoint. We've also noticed, obviously, what happens in each of those markets through the policies that change.

We're taking a very strong stand as it relates to policy to make sure that we can help drive this revolution that's taking place. Again, Europe and China are in a really great place. We will lead across Europe, China and the US.

We've upped our game, even in the last several months, because we know the legislation and policy that we're starting to see is having an impact in a really positive direction. That's made us have to go back in and shift, and almost speed up, where we want to go.

So, it's exciting, but there's no one-size-fits-all. You can't have it. You've got to be able to make sure that you're meeting the pace of the market.

What are some of the success indicators when it comes to sustainability?

One thing I can tell you is, from a brand standpoint, we watch very closely to get the innovation piece of it, which really talks more about not just innovation for innovation’s sake, but the sustainability piece.

And then, electrification. We know that with electrification, the more that we can educate, the more that we can get awareness on that and move that up as a brand attribute. That is critical to understanding how well we are doing. Are we breaking through? Are people even thinking of us as the place to go for electric [vehicles]?

If they're not, then we're not doing our job, and so we’ve got to then obviously reassess and figure out what's missing that we need to make sure that we're drilling on. Some of that may be the customer base that we're talking to, because, for some of them, we could talk about it but it doesn't register.

So there are very clear KPIs. How everybody is tracking on those KPIs is where the difference is going to be.

What is top of mind for you going into 2022?

Inventory. Chip shortages. Supply. It's a real thing. The supply chain is obviously not just for us in the auto industry; it's definitely across the board. But that's top of mind. Getting customers into vehicles that they want is a big challenge going into 2022.

The second thing is continuing this push to electrification. That's top of mind because there's a delicate balance there. There are customers that are going to be laggards in that adoption. We want to make sure that, as Ford, we've made it very clear that our role is to democratize electrification and not make it only for a subset of people. In doing that, there's a lot at risk. So,  making sure that we can bring customers along and then also introduce Ford to new customers.

The third thing I would say, as I think about going into next year, is this digital presence and the footprint of who we are as a brand, how that intersects, and [how] we leverage digital in a very different way than we have.

That's top of mind for me because it's really redefining what Ford stands for and the role that Ford plays in your life, which we know needs to be a lot more in those everyday experiences.

What excites you most about next year?

All of that. With the exception of, obviously, the chip shortages; I’m not necessarily looking forward to the strain on the supply chain. But we're at such an incredible inflection point and I'm really proud of how quickly the company has pivoted, especially with our Ford Plus plan that [Ford chief executive] Jim Farley's laid out. And so that's just a continuation as we go into 2022. As I said the other day, ‘I'm exhausted, but I've never been more excited.’