These days when someone refers to the Big Two US automakers, they might actually be talking about Ford's Executive Chairman, Bill Ford, and CEO, Alan Mulally. Oh, and their bonus of nearly $100 million in stock.

Well deserved? Well, Ford was the only one of the Big Three to avoid government-sponsored bankruptcy in 2008, while rivals General Motors and Chrysler received billions in bailouts. The Ford payout was – according to a company spokesperson – 'an indication of the performance that the company has experienced' under the two leaders.

According to this year's Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, Ford has moved up from 11th place in 2008, to 9th in 2009, to 4th place last year, and now is ranked #2 in brand engagement and customer loyalty. It's gratifying to see such brand acceleration, particularly since these metrics always correlate high with consumer behavior in the marketplace. Currently, the top-5 automotive brands with the highest levels of customer loyalty are

  1. Hyundai
  2. Ford
  3. Honda/Nissin
  4. Mercedes/BMW
  5. GM/Kia

The nice thing about loyalty is not only is it a leading-indicator of sales and profitability, it also identifies customer values and expectations well ahead of traditional research ventures. That's very useful because it lets you know how (and in what ways) particular insights should be driven to optimize brand marketing and communications.

The company sold 1.9 million vehicles in the US last year, a 19% increase from 2009. Ford's January retail sales climbed 27% versus a year ago – the largest retail sales increase to begin a year in more than a decade, so it would seem that the stock awards were warranted.

Success is, after all, doing the right thing, the right way, and at the right time. Any business, like an automobile, has to be driven properly in order to get real market mileage.