A few days ago I noticed a marketer instructed her followers on Twitter to treat their customers as potential ‘mouthpieces’ for their brand. While I cringed at the idea of companies viewing their customers as simply being a ‘mouthpiece’ for the brand, the reality is that such a notion will resonate with a lot of companies. Many companies do view its customers as nothing more than promotional channels. This is an incredibly short-sighted view, and it fails to acknowledge the true value of your customers. And it doesn’t create the relationship that lets their talents and abilities shine the brightest.
This lesson was at the front of my mind as I recently watched the movie Ford vs Ferrari. In the late 1950s, Ford decided that it needed to do a better job of appealing to younger car owners. The marketing department (headed by future Chrysler CEO Lee IIacoca), decided that the way to reach young car buyers was via racing, more specifically, by having Ford win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the most prestigious auto races in the world. At the time, Ferrari was dominating Le Mans, and Ford approached Ferrari with an offer to buy the automaker, which greatly insulted Ferrari. In the process of refusing the offer, Enzo Ferrari greatly insulted Ford CEO Henry Ford II, which compelled Ford to go all-in on winning the race at Le Mans.
Ferrari had dominated Le Mans because racing was the heartbeat of the brand. Motorsports and producing impeccable racing cars was at the heart of Ferrari’s culture. This wasn’t the case at Ford. So Ford, not having the love of motorsports and racing that Ferrari did, approached its entry into Le Mans as a business move, moreso than as a move motivated by a love of racing. Ford hired former Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby to create a car and team that could win Le Mans. But Ford tried to impose its culture on the effort, telling Shelby that he cannot have Ken Miles drive for the team, since Ford wanted a brand spokesperson moreso than the best driver to be behind the wheel at Le Mans. The result was a disasterous finish for Ford at its first attempt at Le Mans, which almost resulted in Ford firing Shelby.
Shelby kept his job, and continued working with Ken Miles to build a car that could win Le Mans for Ford. When Le Mans approached the following year, Ford continued to insist that Miles not drive the car, contending he would not be the proper spokesman for the Ford brand. The ongoing negotiations between Shelby and Ford led to this emotional scene from the movie:
Ford was making a mistake with its entry into Le Mans that many companies make today when they approach better connecting with their customers. Many companies approach this as a business proposition, but they fail to realize that it’s a people proposition. Your company cannot inspire its customers to take action on behalf of your brand if your brand is attempting to view your customers simply as potential sales. Forging better and stronger connections with your customers has to be ingrained in your brand. You have to have a culture that seeks out and pushes to forge deeper connections with your customers. Not simply because you want more sales, but also because you honestly care about the people that buy your brand’s product and services.
Ford went on to let Miles race at Daytona, which he won. He then went on to race at Le Mans, and led the Ford racing team to a 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans. Ford would go on to win 4 straight Le Mans, all driven by cars build by Shelby and Miles. Ford won at Le Mans by learning to trust the drivers who understood the sport of racing on a level which the brand did not. Likewise, if your brand wants to build better relationships with its customers, you will also have to trust those customers and listen to what they have to say.