Failure to launch: Ford Flex

As auto sales have cratered, some manufacturers and models have suffered more than others. Exhibit one is the Ford Flex. A brave attempt at rethinking the concept of the people-mover, the Flex has stalled at the starting gate. Its failure could cause some serious rethinking at Ford about its design and marketing, as well as at its competitors who are introducing similar vehicles.  Did somebody say “Chevy Traverse?”

Production of the Flex began in early June and television advertising popped shortly thereafter.  Rather than focus on the vehicle’s soccer-mom attributes or its novel, flat-roofed, channeled-side design. Ford  went a different direction. Really different.  Recent Ford models have come off as a bit stodgy, so marketers decided to position the Flex as kind of a dance club on wheels.  It was photographed against an inky nighttime background and shown from the front so its extreme length (it has three rows of seats) was not pronounced.

The campaign’s theme is “Electrifying the Night”  but customers aren’t turned on.  Ford had hoped to sell 75,000 to 100,000 Flexes a year but managed less than 2,000 (1969 to be exact) during September.  Do the math and you come up with sales of 24,000 annually. Competitors like the new Honda Pilot and the one-year-old Toyota Highlander didn’t have great months in September either, but still sold 5,192 and 5,729 units respectively (according to Automotive News).

“The Flex is a secret but it’s growing,” says Ford marketing boss Jim Farley.  He says he should have begun advertising sooner to draw buyers to the new model. “There aren’t a huge number of conquest customers coming in to Ford showrooms,” says the former Toyota executive. “It is harder to launch another new Ford crossover than it is a Yaris at Toyota.”

In Flex’s favor is that it is distinctive, well-executed, and scores well in independent tests.  But with a market heavily favoring high-mileage small cars, large ones have a hard time measuring up.  Flex is rated at 17 miles per gallon city; 24 highway.  “Even though it may get good gas mileage and have other positives, the Flex simply looks big,” says J.D. Power analyst Tom Libby.  “That puts it at a disadvantage from the start.”

The reception accorded the Flex should give pause to the folks at Chevrolet, whose own full size crossover, the Traverse, hits the market any day now. Do they go back to basics and tout cupholders, child seat anchors and DVD players? Or do they try to one up the Flex by putting more lipstick on the pig?

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