As with other, more recent brand failures featured in the book (see New Coke, WAP and boo.com for three examples), the Edsel car was launched amid a vast amount of hype. Although the car didn’t appear in showrooms until September 1957, ads promoting it had begun to appear months previously bearing the teaser slogan: ‘The Edsel is Coming’.
Ford decided though, to fuel public interest, the car itself should not be seen in the ads, and even when Ford dealers started stocking the car in their showrooms, they were told they had to keep the vehicles undercover. If they did not they risked a fine and the loss of their franchise with the company.
As Ford hoped, interest was fuelled. The company did not think for one moment that the product would not be able to match the hype, and would lead to a consumer backlash. After all, more work and research had gone into the development of this car than almost any previously.
However, some of the research had already proven futile by the time of the launch. For instance, part of the market research process had been to find a suitable name for the new car. This should have been a good idea. After all, the highly popular Ford Thunderbird car, which had been launched in 1954, had gained its evocative name as a result of market research findings. This
time, research teams were sent out to
Altogether, the company now had a pool of 10,000 names to choose from. Too many, according to company chairman, Ernest Breech, as he scanned through the names during a meeting of the Ford Executive Committee in November 1956. ‘Why don’t we just call it Edsel?’ he asked, exasperated.
Henry Ford II, the grandson of Henry Ford, agreed. Edsel was the name of his father, and the Ford founder’s only son. Not everyone held the same opinion though. The PR director, C Gayle
Warnock, knew that Edsel was not the right name. It had been an early suggestion, and had not been liked by those members of the public who had taken part in the market research (in word-association tests, it had been associated with ‘weasel’ and ‘pretzel’ – hardly the best associations for a dynamic new car). Warnock had preferred other names on the list, such as Pacer, Ranger, Corsair or Citation. When the decision was made, Warnock made his feelings perfectly clear. According to Robert Lacey in his book Ford: The Men and the Machine, Warnock responded to the new Edsel name by declaring: ‘We have just lost 200,000 sales.’ For Warnock, a rose by any other name clearly didn’t smell as sweet.
As it turned out, the name was the least of the Edsel’s problems. There was also the design.
The first blueprint for the Edsel looked truly impressive, as Robert Lacey writes in his book on Ford. ‘With concealed airscoops below the bumpers, this first version of the car was original and dramatic – a dreamlike, ethereal creation which struck those who saw it as the very embodiment of the future.’ However, this magnificent design never got to see the light of day. The people who held onto the purse strings at Ford decided it would simply be too expensive to manufacture.
The design that eventually emerged was certainly unique. Edsel’s chief designer, Roy Brown Jr had always set out to design a car that would be recognizable instantly, from any direction. And indeed, there is no denying that the first Edsels to emerge in 1957 fulfilled this objective. In particular, the car’s front-end bonnet and grille commanded the most attention. ‘The front end design was the most prominent feature,’ confirms Phil Skinner, a respected Edsel historian, ‘If you consider other cars from the mid-1950s, they all looked somewhat alike. Basically it was two headlights and a horizontal grille. By having the big impact ring in the middle – what we now call a horse collar – it really set the Edsel apart.’
Although some members of the automotive press commended this distinctive look, most were unappreciative. One reviewer famously remarked that it looked ‘like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.’ While another thought the front-end grille was less like a horse collar, and more like a toilet seat. (The customer comments later proved to be even worse with some saying that the grille looked like a ‘vagina with teeth’. However, Ford had good relations with the press and Warnock, the PR director, was determined to maximize the media coverage immediately before and after the launch date. Articles subsequently appeared in both Time and Life magazines heralding the Edsel as a breakthrough and explaining how it had been planned for over a decade – a blatant exaggeration on the part of Warnock as Roy Brown had only begun designing the car in 1954. The promotional brochure to mark the September launch of the Edsel also promised a great deal. ‘There has never been a car like the Edsel,’ it promised.
This was a big claim, but Ford had equally big ambitions. The company expected to produce 200,000 units in the car’s first year. This constituted around five per cent of the entire market.
Anyway, the pre-publicity had initially seemed to work. Car showrooms became packed with curious visitors, desperately seeking their first glance of the car. In the first week of its launch, almost three million members of the
In the minds of the public, the car simply didn’t live up to the hype. And unfortunately for Ford, neither did the sales. Edsel sold only 64,000 units in its first year, way below the number anticipated. Ford launched 1959 and 1960 Edsel models but sales fell even further (to 44,891 and 2,846 respectively).
In November 1959 Ford printed the last ever ad for the car and halted production. So what had gone wrong? In the case of Edsel there are almost too many reasons to identify. In fact, it would be easier to ask: what hadn’t gone wrong?
The marketing campaign was certainly a key factor. In simple terms, Ford had overstated its case. Buoyed by the success of the Thunderbird only a few years previously the company must have felt invincible, and this was reflected
In addition to misguided advertising, bad looks and a stupid name, Edsel faced a further problem – it was too expensive. As Sheila Mello explains in her informative book, Customer Centric Product Definition, the launch of the Edsel coincided with a move towards cheaper models: Ford’s decision to highlight the Edsel’s powerful engine during a period when the buying public was gravitating toward smaller, more fuelefficient cars alienated potential customers. The first models in the showroom were the most expensive, top-of-the-line models, resulting in what we refer to today as sticker shock. Unfortunately, too, while some Edsel models were more expensive than comparable cars, they had an equivalent or greater number of quality problems.
Often parts did not fit properly or were simply missing, since Ford frequently built Edsels between Fords and Mercurys on the same assembly line. Many dealers were ill equipped to replace these parts or add accessories. The car ended up looking more expensive than it actually was because of poor timing. In the 1950s, US new car models typically appeared in November for the following year. For instance, a 1956 Thunderbird would have come out in November 1955. However, Edsel was launched in September, two months before the other new models arrived. It was therefore a 1958 car competing against 1957 models – and more importantly, 1957 prices.
In fact, the situation was even worse than that. Not only had Edsel decided to push its most expensive models first, but the 1957 models it was competing with were being offered at a discounted price in order to sell them before next year’s models were wheeled into the showroom.
A high price may have been acceptable if it had been worth paying. However, the experience of those few early Edsel customers quickly gave the car a reputation for mechanical problems. Edsel now popularly stood for Every Day Something Else Leaks. One thing though was completely beyond Ford’s control. After a boom period for the
In a September 1989 article for The Freeman, a publication of The Foundation for Economic Education, car industry journalist Anthony Young explained how Ford had paid little attention to market research, and that this was the true reason why the Edsel failed:
The Edsel serves as a textbook example of corporate presumption and disregard for market realities. It also demonstrates that advertising and pre-delivery hype have their limits in inducing consumers to buy a new and unproven car. In a free market economy, it is the car-buying public, not the manufacturer, that determines the success or failure of an automobile. A manufacturer shouldn’t oversell a new car, or unrealistic expectations will be built up in the minds of consumers. If the newly introduced car doesn’t live up to expectations, it is practically doomed on the showroom floor.
However, Ford quickly learnt its lesson. A few years later the spectacular failure of the Edsel was counterbalanced by the equally spectacular success of the Ford Mustang. Launched in 1964, the Mustang sold half a million vehicles in its first year of production. Not only did it have a better name and a good-looking bonnet, the Mustang had one further advantage over its predecessor – it was affordable.
As Sheila Mello points out, between 1960 (when the Edsel was phased out) and 1964 (when the Mustang was launched) Ford, along with most of the car industry, had shifted its focus towards what the consumer actually wanted. ‘The success of the Mustang demonstrates that Ford Motor Company did learn from the Edsel experience,’ she writes. ‘The key difference between the ill-fated development of the Edsel and the roaring success of the 24 Brand failures Mustang was the shift from a product-centric focus to a customer-centric one.’
This view is supported by Lee Iacocca, who oversaw the creation of the Mustang as Ford president, before taking over the reins at Chrysler. In his autobiography, Iacocca explains the approach behind the Mustang: ‘Whereas the Edsel had been a car in search of a market it never found, here was a market in search of a car. The normal procedure in
So while the whole Edsel episode may have been a costly embarrassment for Ford in the short term, it helped the company learn some valuable lessons which it has carried with it to this day.