As the F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup truck hits the market, Ford’s new advertising campaign is using a traditional approach featuring themes of employee toil and teamwork in an anthem-style TV commercial, and sponsorship of a major sporting event. But Ford also is innovating with a big dip into cultural diversity—and an uncharacteristically piquant dig at CEOs of other companies, perhaps to be interpreted as targeting Elon Musk.
The automaker’s #FORDfortheBuilders campaign is coming at a unique and crucial hour for the company as it begins to unleash Lightning on the U.S. market amid high expectations that its decision to attach a battery powertrain to its most important nameplate will both rivet traditional F-150 truck buyers and engage an entire new population of customers. Ford CEO Jim Farley essentially has bet the company’s future on rapidly electrifying existing popular models and on producing more all-electric vehicles and batteries in $50 billion worth of new investments in plants in Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan.
Developed by Wieden + Kennedy, the campaign begins with spots on TV and in social media narrated by Bryan Cranston, the actor who’s been the voice of Ford commercials for a few years now, and features employees assembling Lightning at the company’s new Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan. The spots will begin appearing on May 7 during NBC’s broadcast of the Kentucky Derby.
At the same time, the cutting edge of Ford marketing also will be on display this weekend in the brand’s sponsorship of the Derby, launching on TikTok and including in the TV broadcast a focus on individual Ford employees. These workers might be considered organic to the crowd because Ford builds big SUVs and heavy-duty pickups at a plant in Louisville, the city that also hosts the Derby.
“We want to make sure to get where we ultimately want to be as a company: leading the electrification revolution,” Jim Peters, Ford’s manager of U.S. sponsorships and partnerships, told Chief Executive. “The way we’re going to get there is to hone in on our people. It’s about celebrating the future of American manufacturing that we’re investing in, and our role in that future.
“Everyone is celebrating social-media influencers and CEOs and tech gurus, but our marketing is about ‘builders.’ That’s a big part of our story as we lead this revolution. With our capabilities and resources, we’re unique as a big player in that space, and this campaign is highlighting that.”
Thus, in the one-minute version of the new spot titled “Ford for the Builders,” Cranston intones, “Right now, it could seem that the only people who matter are the loudest, those who want to tear things down, and then fly away on their own personal spaceships when things get hard.” Background scenes include a yakking mouth and a rocket launch.
Then the visuals switch to Ford territory such as the “green,” grass-covered roof of its traditional-F-150 plant in Dearborn, near the Rouge EV center; a mockup of one of Ford’s planned big EV plants in the mid-South; and action inside the F-150 Lightning factory.
“But we’ve got 182,000 people, and they’re building, big things, new things, things that will change the way we do things,” Cranston continues. “Assembling more vehicles in the U.S. than any other automaker things. Fifty billion dollars committed to electric vehicles things. And you might not know their names, but these people get up every day working together to move us all forward.” Cameos ensue featuring a few individual Ford workers and their signatures under, “Built Ford Proud.”
Ford also is making a big deal about features of F-150 Lightning that even its conventional F-150 doesn’t offer, including an onboard generator that can power a home and a spacious under-hood compartment known as a “frunk.” It chose social media to lead a new effort to get frunk into the American lexicon and to use the feature as the cutting edge of a broad strategy to popularize Lightning in cities and with diverse populations, demographics that haven’t seriously been targeted by truck makers before.
So Ford has hatched a YouTube series of three videos showing influencers using the frunk in different ways, all in urban settings. One shows two men who are members of a Bronx-based chef collective called Ghetto Gastro cooking shrimp and waffles from supplies they toted in the frunk and using only power from Lightning and a Ford Mustang Mach-E all-electric car. In other videos, musicians and tattoo artists similarly utilize the frunk and Lightning’s on-board electric power.
Farley, who rose through the Ford ranks in sales and marketing, was “aware” of the tack of the new branding campaign, a spokesman said, while CMO Suzy Deering led the effort.
What the spokesman declined to say is whether the line in the “Ford for the Builders” spot that refers to people “who want to tear things down, and then fly away on their own personal spaceships when things get hard” is a veiled reference to Musk, the founder and CEO both of the Tesla electric-car company and of SpaceX, which makes spacecraft—and, of course, the would-be new acquirer of Twitter.
The nudge also could refer implicitly to Jeff Bezos, who owns the Blue Orbit rocket outfit and actually has flown into space, as has Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Galactic. But Musk has talked about dying on Mars, which implies escaping Earth. Plus, Farley keeps mentioning Ford’s intention to become a solid No. 2 player in the EV market to Tesla within a couple of years, presumably with the hope of someday surpassing the upstart.
What’s more, Farley and Musk have had a running frenemy relationship on Twitter for the past couple of years, though especially lately their open conversation has been mutually complementary.
“The cemetery of automotive startups over the last century is very large and will get larger,” Musk tweeted in October. “Tesla and Ford are the only American car companies that haven’t gone bankrupt.”
To which Farley replied, “Thanks for leading the way.”