What the Ford Motor Company Learned From Steve Jobs

Detroit is learning to sell cars like gadgets. It’s about damn time.
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Detroit is learning to sell cars like gadgets. It’s about damn time.
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At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Ford revealed the first Mustang to unanimous praise. The next day, news of its release dominated the national press and Time and Newsweek started arranging for pictures of the new “pony car" to run pictures on their covers. That was a triumph for Lee Iacocca, but it didn’t presage what was to come. For most of the last five decades, Ford – and other domestic manufacturers – have released new models according to a product schedule dictated by large auto shows, where other brands will release other cars. New models don’t often make the front page, settling instead for a mention in a trend piece in a magazine’s tech section.

Even as Detroit struggles to get ink, the press is shaking out the well for hot takes on new product releases out of Silicon Valley. Is a tablet as exciting as a 435-horsepower six-speed manual? Not in our book, but it’s all about the presentation. When a major company creates its own release schedule, stirs up an atmosphere of secrecy around announcements, then delivers products and grandiloquent visions of the future at the same time, journalists pay attention. Apple doesn’t give a damn about trade shows because it’s not in the computer business, it’s in the Apple business, which means forever redefining categories. Ford, on the other hand, is in the automotive industry.

But they’re learning.

Ford is selling its best line-up ever and working to make sure that media coverage reflects the jump in quality. With  its latest teasers, Ford has torn a page out of the Apple manual. Every couple of weeks, Ford has released a teaser video advertising a November 17th announcement. Each video explores an aspect of “Ford Performance,” speaking to the brand’s goals while teasing – in the same way Apple does with dim shots of beveled aluminum corners – a few letters on an engine block and the downright evil burble of a V8.  Just like Apple, Ford has realized that a piecemeal disclosure is more exciting, sexier even, than a one-and-done—think of it as a sort of burlesque instead of a t-shirt-over-the-head full disclosure. What’s beneath all the words? Will it change everything?

In the videos, Ford’s top executives and designers seem pretty convinced that it might. They talk about power trains as like cold fusion. It’s a bit over the top, but it’s also good fun As Jobs did, and Tim Cook does, the people from Ford are evoking their latest product as the ultimate expression, expertly crafted, of lofty ambitions and sterling corporate principals.

Our best guess is that today will bring either a high-performance Mustang with a supercharged V8 (GT530? GT500?) or a successor to the GT, Ford’s Ferrari-fighting, mid-engined sports car not sold since 2006. Either way, we’re excited about it – largely because Ford told us to be. And even the Detroit brass pull back the drape on a Fiesta, they’ll have proved that they can tap into human curiosity and create their own media event, training their own spotlight on themselves. That’s meaningful progress, the sort of technological leap they’ve spent the last few weeks talking about.

That said, we’re still hoping it’s the Mustang.

Photos by PAUL SAKUMA / AP