Believe it or not, there was a period in the early 1990s when Ford Motor Company seriously considered killing the iconic Mustang. Ford sold 680,000 copies of the new Mustang through the first 18 months of production after it debuted in 1964. Ford cranked out another 670,000 pony cars in 1966, bringing the total number of Mustangs on the road to more than 1.3 million. It was Ford’s most successful new car launch since the Model A and served as a real signal of change for the company and the industry. Of course, the company’s extraordinary success didn’t go unnoticed, and thus began the muscle car era. Competitive manufacturers joined the fray with their own affordable high-performance automobiles. Dodge, Chrysler, Pontiac and Chevy all showed up with sexy new street fighters and gobbled up a lot of market share in the burgeoning segment.
As the market changed over the decades so did sales, and the Mustang never was able to replicate the original success of the 60s. As automotive tastes and trends evolved the Mustang design team worked to keep pace. Sometimes Ford got the redesigns right, and other times they missed the mark. Chasing the fickle fancy of consumers is never easy. Over the years, consumers cast their ballots with their wallets and the results are chronicled in 50 years worth of annual sales data.
It’s no secret that the 80s weren’t kind to the domestic automakers, and Ford was no exception. Persistent quality problems and the constant din of media coverage of ugly manufacturer and union disputes grew tiresome for consumers. Labor walkouts and strikes drew little sympathy from those outside the Rust Belt, and before we knew it the good folks at Honda and Toyota were showing off great looking new models and earning gold stars for quality. The rest of the story is a business history lesson we know all too well. The fallout for Detroit has been ugly.
I happened to be a young account executive with J. Walter Thompson working on the Ford account in the Detroit office in the early 90s. I loved my 1990 Mustang GT, but I was part of a shrinking crowd of enthusiasts. In 1992, annual Mustang sales had fallen to just 79,280 units. The poor performance had all but the die-hard Mustang lovers at Ford convinced it was time to let the model die a natural death. Instead, the designers at Ford went back to the drawing board and reimagined the car, turning out the first major model overhaul in 16 years. In 1993, Ford released the updated version and sales responded. Annual unit sales shot up 44 percent and continued to grow through the balance of the decade until, again, the vehicle began to look dated.
Over the years, I’ve seen the kind of sales success Ford generated with its redesign replicated across a variety of industries. In the restaurant industry, for example, it’s not unusual to produce annual sales gains of 35 percent or more from facility upgrades. Sometimes the very best advertising is change and change alone. Consumers respond positively to positive change. A positive signal of change captures attention and causes a reflexive brand re-evaluation. In fact, strategically planned signals of change are essential for sustaining brand longevity. The human psyche is programmed to seek out and pay attention to change – both good and bad. It’s a survival capacity, and savvy marketers know how critical it is to offer signals of change – from full redesigns to new products.
“Evolve or die,” is the marketing mantra. The challenge, of course, is to evolve with current core customers while attracting the next generation. In the past 50 years, Ford has redesigned the Mustang ten times and the latest version is just in time. Sales of the Mustang have fallen to historic lows since 2008, dipping down to just 66,623 units in 2009 with a soft recovery to just 82,635 units sold last year. It appears, however, that the 2015 redesign is hitting its mark. Sales are up 36 percent year-over-year with the introduction of the latest edition of what is now a classic heritage brand.
Personally, I’d like to see new Mustangs on the roads for decades to come. But, as is true for all marketers, that will depend on how well and how often Ford can capture the attention of customers with appealing signals of change.