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Why Mass-Marketers Will Struggle to Adapt

What does a legacy communications or consumer electronics leader have in common with the Ford Motor Company? On the surface, very little. But, when you dig deeper into Ford's current business challenges, there are valuable 'lessons learned' worthy of comparison.

U.S. business school case studies that profile Ford often include three related topics, the establishment of mass-production methods, the Model-T automobile innovation, and the Ford Edsel anticlimax. Each stage of the historical Ford storyline forms the foundation for current-day mass-marketer thinking -- we know what customers want, and it looks just like this, period. How does that mindset carry-over into the 21st Century?

AP reports that the challenge from Ford Motor Company's top brass was daunting: Take an old car and a bland one and make them better. Don't change their basic frames and footprints, but make them look and feel new. And by the way, the future of the company is at stake, because if they don't sell, the automaker could run out of money.

That's what Ford designers and engineers faced when they set out to update the aging 'Focus' small car and the slow-selling 'Five Hundred' full-sized sedan. The company will unveil new versions of both models at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The ultimate question; will this be enough to save Ford? Meanwhile, analysts say the company desperately needs sales to raise cash if it hopes to survive.

What are the odds for Ford's recovery? If their problems are merely product oriented, then perhaps they have a fighting chance. However, if they are inherently company culture oriented, then the odds are against them. As an example, consider the product and service adjustments that the once-great Western Union and Pan American Airways made in an attempt to stay relevant to their customers. Clearly, it wasn't enough.

So, why is it so difficult for companies conceived in the mass-market era to adapt to the elevation of their customer and potential customer's expectations? At the risk of being accused of an over-simplification, I'd say it's repeated denial that the bar of expectations has been 'significantly' raised. As a case in point, consider this statement.

"Our mindset hasn't changed, regardless of what our financial position is," said Beth Donovan, Ford's small car marketing manager.

Where's the parallel between the Ford scenario and the communications or consumer electronics sector? Well, just consider the Motorola ongoing struggle to maintain it's share in the evolving mobile phone space, and Sony's longstanding fight to keep a piece of the shifting television space.

The very self-confident 'good enough' doctrine of the mass-market era that initially made all these companies successful has ironically turned-out to be their cultural handicap, as they move forward. Corporate pride can lead to arrogant ambivalence, and history has already proven that repetitive denial can lead to the downfall of commercial empires.

Perhaps the 'mass-customization' oxymoron will be the last fleeting attempt to carry that bygone era mindset into the radically different future of the emerging micro-markets within the global networked economy. The struggle to stay relevant, while striving to reach that elevated bar, will be the daunting challenge that many once-great technology companies will face in 2007. Ford is not alone as it navigates through this somewhat unpredictable landscape.

That said, I remain highly optimistic for those marketers who will positively choose a bold path of re-discovery for themselves, their corporations and their multifaceted marketplace. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for those with strategic foresight -- the shift from a mass- to a micro-market landscape is perhaps best described as navigation through a dense fog in uncharted waters with the islands of Hawaii as the destination.

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