Lack of Creativity Saps Corporate Energy

Ford 500 SEL
Ford Five Hundred SEL

It’s a topic I cover at length in my upcoming book. Sometimes you can tell a great deal about a company from distance, without even crossing the threshold. I find it often in advertisements, press releases, and especially in products. Today I found it in the total lack of creativity in the naming and design of a product. From a company that is losing market share hand over fist.

I pulled up behind a car today that made me do a double take. It was a large black four door sedan, with a strong hint of styling of the large Mercedes sedans. I saw the badging that said “SEL” on the right trunk. I thought… hmmm that’s one I hadn’t seen, seems like it’s off for MB. Actually kind of ugly. Wonder what it is?

To my complete shock, it was a “Ford Five Hundred SEL“. A Mercedes knock-off that Ford didn’t even have the creativity to name with some imagination. If you know Mercedes, you know that throughout the 80’s and 90’s their top of the line sedan was the 500 SEL. As if to avoid lawsuits, Ford decided not to call it the 500, but rather the “Five Hundred”. But I’m not fooled, and clearly calling the model the “SEL” was no accident.

Mercedes Benz S500
Mercedes Benz S500

Of course copying styles in the automotive world is nothing new, and one shouldn’t be surprised to see a million look-alike boxes wandering the highways these days. But this level of clear duplication is far beyond the norm. Not only does the car copy many of the styling cues, but they blatantly stole the name. If Daimler-Chrysler’s lawyers aren’t all over this, they should be.

But, legal issues aside, the part that is so depressing to me is the signal this sends to the world, and especially to the employees of Ford. It says, quite loudly and clearly: “we have run out of ideas, and we no longer really care enough to be creative”. This is a sad commentary for a company who’s marketing tag line is “Bold Moves”, and who’s young Chairman appears in their own ads stressing how hard they are working to be innovative.

It says, quite loudly and clearly: “we have run out of ideas”

Also sad is that this lack of creativity is from a company with a long heritage of innovation. From the early days and Henry’s clear vision for the Model T, to the exciting years of the Mustang, and even later with the original “slip-stream sedan” of the 80’s in the Taurus, the company has a history of leadership in many areas. And now this…

Perhaps the saddest part of this is that, from all accounts, the Five Hundred is a very good car. It got strong praise from the automotive press, car buyers liked it, and the ever hard to please Consumer Reports loved it. The engineers did a great job with this car, it was the product naming and marketing team that simply gave up. And the sales show it. One clear sign is that I first noticed this car almost two years after introduction. Another is that the car is selling so poorly that Ford has cut production of the car.

This all must just make everyone at Ford so depressed.

All of this must hit all parts of Ford. Think of the production team sitting there excitedly at the internal introduction of the car, and it rolls out as an exact duplicate of the world’s most prestigious brand’s flagship car. One can only imagine how depressed they would be, how demoralizing it would be to have the Chairman talking about “bold moves”, and then send you off to make copies. Exactly how hard would the sales force work to sell a car with the highlight being: “well, it looks and is named exactly like a car that costs twice as much”? And how much does the public believe in Ford when their flagship sedan is so much a contradiction from their loudly stated objective of “bold moves”?

This all must just make everyone at Ford so depressed. I know it did me, and I don’t even work there.