Ford’s Crystal Ball Predicts Disruption

Automaker releases internal report looking at effects of Zipcar, bikes and Gen Y carpooling

In a bid to burnish its reputation as a forward-thinking brand, Ford has released a 74-page internal consumer trends report for 2013 that forecasts major disruptions among numerous industries, including Ford’s home turf—the auto industry. Car-sharing services like Zipcar, carpooling by Gen Yers, bike sharing and “multi-mix forms of mobility” are all explored as signs of how consumers are changing their car habits.

For instance, in a case study of consumers’ “post-green” mentality, the report points to Depave in Portland, Ore.—an organization that helped change 94,000 square feet of concrete and asphalt into green spaces around the city. The report also cites an Indiana suburb that was redesigned to downplay auto traffic, including a new one-mile, walkable town center. Scattered among details of such trends are promotions for Ford’s energy-efficient models, in-car technology and sustainable manufacturing materials. 

The automaker’s goal is to be "proactive about the new ways people approach mobility so it is not likely to be blind-sided by changes in the world," said Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s global futurist and author of the report. "In the past, the company would base its strategy around building on our strengths and minimizing our weaknesses. Now we are looking at overall trends to see what we can control and what in the landscape we can shape."

Ford actually partnered with car-sharing company Zipcar in mid-2011 to provide 2012 Ford models as part of Zipcar’s fleet on 250 college campuses. The automaker also introduced traffic sensors and other new driving technology to save energy and reduce gridlock.

Ford decided to make the report public this year as a content marketing initiative showing that the brand is “not myopic, but is going beyond making cars into being an enabler in mobility opportunities,” Connelly said. Conversation with outsiders about the insights “will make Ford’s forecasting more robust,” she added. The report encourages people to comment on Twitter using the hashtag #fordtrends.

Jeff Dachis, CEO of Dachis Group and a specialist in social business practices, said Ford’s trend report is a branding coup. “The report’s authenticity and transparency is enhanced by the way it shares information about the auto industry’s vulnerabilities,” he said. “It would be misguided for the auto industry to continue to tell us that larger trends around energy efficiency or the environment will not impact people’s future transportation options. Aligning itself with progressive trends helps Ford in the marketplace.”

Despite major shifts in car use habits outlined in its own report, Ford doesn’t intend to scale down the traditional auto business. “Individual vehicle ownership is timeless," Connelly said. “We just have to remember it is not the only way. We need to be open-minded to other possibilities.”