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How the Ford F-150 Unites and Explains American Customers

How the Ford F-150 Unites and Explains American Customers

“You won’t be judged one way or another. You can come from any walk of life.”

That’s how Simon Lewis thought about the Ford F-150 when considering his options. He had recently acquired property in the wine country north of San Francisco. Some thirty years earlier, Lewis came to the United States from Ireland and founded a successful IT services company. He also “liked where Ford was going with the technology.”

Imagine having a product that can appeal to everyone, no matter their “walk of life.” In the case of the Ford F-150, it fuels wild success. The Ford F-150 pickup truck is the best-selling vehicle in America and has been for forty-one consecutive years. The top three best-selling vehicles in the United States are all pickup trucks. Outside the U.S., the Toyota Corolla sedan is the top seller, which in America ranks number twelve. Clearly, there is something very American going on here. You can feel it, but what is it, and how can we learn from it to grow our businesses?

According to ChatGPT, The F-150’s success is due to its versatility, durability, power, technology, and brand loyalty. But you can name dozens of successful cars or trucks that could make similar claims. Those attributes might describe a successful refrigerator. No, there’s something else going on. As Simon Lewis said, “It’s as American as apple pie.” But why?

(For the record, ChatGPT did provide a better answer for why apple pie is so American: “Apple pie has become associated with American cuisine because it has been a popular dessert in the United States since the country's early days. Apples were one of the few fruits that could be grown successfully in the early colonies, and they were often used in pies as a way to preserve them for longer periods.”)

One reason the F-150 is the number one vehicle in sales is that it has a strong appeal for both liberal and conservative customers, which is unique in any product category. It’s only one of two vehicles that rank in the top ten in vehicle sales for both groups (the other is the Kia Forte Sedan).

So how did Ford accomplish this feat? They certainly got a jump on the market as the first to mass-produce pickup trucks in 1922 with the “Model T Runabout with Pickup Body.” They effectively invented the pickup format. Dodge, GMC, and Chevrolet soon followed, yet never gained a leadership position.

When Ford launched the F Series pickups in 1948, they redefined the category by starting to make pickups a lifestyle choice in addition to providing utility. Car and Driver noted that with the new F-Series, “Creature comforts such as armrests, sun visors, a dome light, and an optional automatic transmission begin to sprout.” This expanded the market, with Ford leading the way. According to Mike Mueller, author of The American Pickup Truck, less than fifteen percent of owners reported using their pickup primarily for work purposes by the 1990s.

Ford broadened the market even more in 1980 with the launch of the F-150 model, pushing the boundaries of what a consumer could expect in a pickup. They infused technology, comfort, and convenience into the new F-150 to make the pickup more of an everyday driver. The F-150 was the first pickup to include power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, interval windshield wipers, tinted windshields, locking gas caps, inside locking hood releases, and more. This all seems so mundane today, but in 1980 it was a game changer.

The launch of the F-150 was also remarkable for what Ford didn’t do. They didn’t make it look futuristic despite having advanced features or otherwise change the format. Instead, the F-150 came in a recognizable, familiar, workhorse wrapper similar to other pickups. The immediate impression was traditional, yet lurking inside were innovative amenities announcing this was a new kind of pickup.

It’s that combination of looking forward with explicit reference to the past that is an x-factor for unifying liberal and conservative customers. You give both markets a reason to want the product in a complementary manner. In this case, it’s about each market’s change boundaries: The liberal market is more open to change and is prone to experimentation with innovation, while the conservative market prefers familiarity and tradition. When you can achieve both simultaneously, the market size doubles.

So the F-150 is “bi-partisan,” contributing to its success, but what is it about pickup trucks outselling every other type of car? Now we’re getting into the common ground of American markets that any business can tap into for growth. It’s the common ground of most Americans coming from somewhere else as a nation of immigrants.

“An obvious point is that one of the main reasons that many historically choose to leave everything and everyone they knew behind was because of a burning desire for economic betterment,” comments Gurnek Bains, author of Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalization“All voluntary migrant communities show this enhanced drive for material success; the only difference is that America is globally unique in terms of the extent to which it is composed of such groups.”

The American national market thrives on “economic betterment,” often referred to as the American Dream. You can think of the United States as acting like a magnet for a particular mindset, one willing to abandon what they have to cross an ocean or border, whether three hundred years ago or three days ago. It’s a mindset embedded in every market that includes a sense of adventure and a desire to lift oneself up from the bootstraps.

To go deeper into this mindset - to make it more applicable to a wide range of products - it’s helpful to look at American culture through visitors’ eyes. One way is to study how educational institutions and global businesses “prep” international students and expats for what to expect when moving to the United States.

When analyzing more than twenty articles from such organizations as Harvard and HSBC, there is remarkable consistency in describing American culture. Nine common attributes emerge: competition, independence & self-determination, self-Improvement & DIY, productivity, ingenuity, achievement, directness, underdog, and friendliness & informality.

These nine attributes can serve as ingredients for building a filter through which a market sees a brand, product, and communications to appeal to a broader American market. Applying the filter to automobiles makes it more evident why pickups are so popular in the United States. Pickups emphasize independence & self-determination, self-Improvement & DIY, productivity, and directness.

It’s hard to imagine any other vehicle category beating pickups with these attributes. In addition, Harris Poll reports that eighty-nine percent of pickup truck owners use them to help others, so they enable friendliness. Narrow the focus to the Ford F-150, and you can add ingenuity and achievement due to its continuous innovation and leadership position. The F-150 is perhaps the most American of all pickups.

Mark Reif from the auto industry website Hotcars says, “With a front end that just says "let's go to work" and a muscular silhouette, the Ford F-150 is a symbol of American grit, ingenuity, and old-school values. Looking back on even the earliest versions of the Ford F Series pickups, way back in the late 1940s, they have an honest, tough persona that looks ready-made for a day working on a farm or hauling lumber to a construction site.”

Benoit Bergeret bought the first F-150 SVT Raptor available in Northern California when he came to San Francisco from France to run a mobile technology company. His Audi got stuck on a dirt road, and he “wanted to go places.” For him, the F-150 had a “sense for getting something done and to do it myself, which is more in U.S. culture. In Europe, it’s more about who can do it for me. It’s why the maker movement started in the U.S.” Simon Lewis added, “A gentleman farmer in England isn’t going to buy a pickup truck. They’re going to buy a Land Rover.”

Unsurprisingly, Ford chose the F-150 to launch their new electric model, the F-150 Lightning. And unlike the Tesla Cybertruck and the Rivian R1T, the F-150 Lightning will be immediately recognizable in its design, once again looking to the past while looking forward, which will help double the market size over the competition.

While you may not have a product that combines leading technology with rugged individualism like the F-150, you can tap into the nine common attributes of the American mindset to unite and broaden your market. You just have to choose those that align best with your story. There tends to be ingenuity, for example, behind many products. And friendliness can be applied to just about anything. In the meantime, buy an F-150 for inspiration. Make it a business investment. Or do what Simon Lewis did: “I bought it for my wife for her birthday. Needless to say, it’s been mine ever since.”

This article originally appeared in the newsletter, Red and Blue Customers

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"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company