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Put Your Customer in the Driver’s Seat

Ford Knows the Customers They Want — And They’re Willing to Toss Them the Keys

 

By Kelly Sarabyn

For passionate drivers who wanted to add the 2017 Ford GT to their collection, the base price of nearly half a million dollars was the easy part. Like many brands trying to cultivate exclusivity, Ford chose to restrict the production of the GT — only 500 were available. In most cases, lucky customers gain access to limited runs by signing up early, paying a premium, waiting in long lines, or by a personal connection to the company. Ford took this tactic to new heights by exercising incredible control over who could purchase the 2017 Ford GT. For its global run of only 500 GTs, over 7000 people filled out Ford’s fifteen page application — just for a shot at a wildly expensive car they’d never seen in person. 

Ford’s angle? This unusually lengthy application gave them the power to shape its GT customer base like never before. In a search for the most informed, highly engaged customers, not only was the willingness to fill out a long application a screening device, it provided insights today’s data-driven brands pine for. The application delved extensively into the potential customer’s dedication to motorsports generally, and to Ford specifically — asking whether they had an older Ford GT or other Ford cars in their personal car collections, and whether they had any type of “strategic partnership” with Ford. 

Questions sought to figure out which customers would be effective spokespeople for the Ford GT, going so far as to inquire about the potential customer’s ability to “influence” through social media, or other public channels like TV and radio. It even demanded specific demographics for the potential customer’s audience. The last section requested videos and images of the potential customer — to be uploaded to a publicly accessible site like YouTube — presumably so Ford could judge whether the potential customer would be a compelling advocate for the brand. 

This process has paid off for Ford: its chosen customers praised the GT publicly when it was released, an effect that was multiplied by the positive press from celebrities, influencers and the mass market media. Of course, the stakes were high for the winning customers, too: anything less than a glowing review would have made their efforts in applying (and spending half a million dollars) seem foolish.  

 

Customers Own Your Story

Organizations lacking Ford’s massive marketing budget, or ability to sell an ultra-premium, limited-run product like the GT might dismiss the extensive application as simply a PR stunt to enhance the prestige and credibility of Ford’s overall brand. But Ford’s decision to individually select customers— as opposed to Tesla, for example, which is selling the in-demand Tesla 3 based on more traditional methods such as signup order — is instructive for companies of any size. 

Startups and other young companies are often quick to engage any customer: survival of the company is a legitimate concern, and it appears counter-intuitive to turn down any willing customers. Yet, every business must balance the imperative for short-term viability with the vision for long-range sustainability. Ford’s application process illustrates a larger truth: the personality, as well as the particular needs and demographics of a company’s customer base end up shaping and defining the nature of the brand. The value of the 500 GT customers wasn’t in their individual purchases, it was in their ability to add a particular cachet and credibility to the Ford brand.  

Companies have long considered this in the content of their advertising, careful to show (actor) customers that project the right brand image. A commercial for B2B tax software company might feature studious executives and accountants, for example, and a company selling prepared children’s lunches might feature busy suburban mothers. 

The reality, though, is that in an age where social media, online networking, and digital reviews are pervasive, this type of top-down control of a brand’s image is no longer possible. Actual customers play the crucial role once occupied by the professional spokesperson in how a brand is perceived and understood. By better controlling who those people were, Ford shaped the perception of the GT brand as effectively as the legacy approach, but in an authentic way that aligned it with car experts and celebrities that had a track record of devotion to Ford, and a genuine enthusiasm for automotive engineering.  

Ford could have just as easily sold the GT solely to automotive influencers, giving it a reputation as a “car person’s car,” or targeted it toward celebrities in an attempt to make Ford a hipper brand. But the particular customer base they chose — genuine car enthusiasts, from amateurs to professionals, who truly like to drive — have secured the story of the Ford GT’s as a feat of engineering that belongs on the road. 

No matter what vertical a company is in, and regardless of their target audience, cultivating a specific customer base can define the brand’s image, as well as the trajectory of its product development. Consider a digital marketing startup who lands a core clientele of mostly small trade businesses, like plumbing or residential roofing companies. As a result, they are likely to secure a reputation as the “trade” company. This decision can define a business for the long-term: while in this example the company may dominate one niche of the market, they are unlikely to win customers with more complex needs, such as those in technology or fashion apparel, even if the company has the resources to meet those needs.  

Potential customers find out about a company’s current customer base in a variety of ways — through press releases, media coverage, online reviews, social media mentions, word-of-mouth, a company’s website or proffered referrals, or even witnessing customers using the product. Today, more than ever, potential customers will discover a company’s current customer base, and make judgments about the brand accordingly.  

Even though it might be counter-intuitive, it is essential for businesses to not just accept any willing customer, but rather to make an effort to only cultivate relationships with the right customers. Selecting the customers that align with the brand’s core story does more than millions of dollars of marketing. Best of all, finding the right customer base will not only validate the company’s brand story, but their feedback will push the company’s product development in a manner consistent with their story.  

 

How Startups Can Shape Their Customer Base 

Most companies won’t go to the lengths Ford did to shape their customer base: demanding potential customers fill out an extensive application is overkill for the vast majority of companies. But there are other effective ways to shape a customer base: 

• Digital advertising and influencer endorsements can be targeted to an incredibly specific audience. Many companies already use these targeting features, but too often the only question a company asks is, “Who will buy this product?” As Ford demonstrated, it is also important to ask, “Who do we want buying the product? What do these particular customers say about our brand?”

• Explicitly restrict who can purchase. Facebook, for example, originally limited its users to those at elite colleges. This chosen customer base — young, educated elites — might have restricted Facebook’s short-term growth, but it branded the product as exclusive, innovative, and forward-thinking, helping to propel the brand to long-term popularity. Gmail pursued a similar strategy when it launched its email service by invitation-only.

• Product pricing can help to define a customer base. In the B2B SaaS space, for example, pricing a product to start in the thousands of dollars per month can effectively limit the customer base to enterprise businesses, excluding most startups, small businesses, and hobbyists. If the company needs enterprise customers to flourish, ensuring it doesn’t develop a reputation as a company designed to service small businesses is vital.

• Use restrictive vernacular in external messaging and sales that will only be accessible by the target audience. For example, a software company seeking to be used by enterprise customers speaking to the product’s ability to solve businesses’ concerns around “security, workflow, process automation, and Big Data analytics,” will likely attract corporations and turn away smaller businesses.

• Partner with another company that has the desired customer base. For example, specialty coffee roasters like La Colombe sell their products in high-end grocers like Whole Foods in order to connect with Whole Food’s affluent customer base. Red Bull and GoPro co-hosted high adrenaline sports events, effectively marketing to each other’s young, active customer base.

• Control how the product is sold. If the product requires more effort to obtain, whether by inquiring with a sales person, visiting an actual location, or facing a waiting time before delivery of services, it will attract more devoted customers, and customers who are more likely to be enterprises. Consumers are used to instant purchases; corporations, on the other hand, do not expect to have an immediate turnaround time.

• Control where the product is sold. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, started selling its product in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, cultivating a down-to-earth customer base that persists to this day. Contrast this to high-end ice cream brand Van Leeuwan, which sells its scoops in pricey neighborhoods of Brooklyn, attracting hipsters and professionals with disposable income.

Empowering the Right Customers

Selecting the correct initial customer base is almost as vital as early team members. The correct ones give the vital feedback that helps a brand grow, and become powerful advocates who guide the trajectory of the company’s growth. Attracting only the customers who can send the right brand message also allows the company to empower them. Customers who are proudly serving as the protagonist of a company’s story feel a sense of ownership marketing alone can’t buy, and creates a scenario where they can’t help but share the brand widely. While few companies can mimic Ford’s extensive GT customer applications, all companies can be cognizant about the customers they wish to have — and take effective measures to ensure they are connecting with them.

Kelly Sarabyn is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.