The Ford F-series is the most popular vehicle in the United States. How did it become such an icon?
The Ford F-150 is not only the most sold pick-up truck, it’s also the most sold vehicle in the United States. In 2020, the Ford F-series became the best-selling vehicle for 39 years in a row and the best selling truck for 44 year straight. Whilst selling 12% less vehicles in 2020, Ford was still able to sell 787,422 units in 2020. Where does the love for the F-series come from and how is Ford able to keep the line-up fresh throughout the years?
The United States has a long tradition when it comes down to the pick-up truck. It is a staple of American life which started out through tinkering. At the beginning of the 20th century, the pick-up truck started out as a box attached to vehicles like the Ford Model T, which democratized the automobile for the average American. As Americans wanted to haul more stuff around, they needed the boot space to accompany it, so a DIY attitude proliferated. It would take Ford up to 1924 when they first released a factory built version of the Ford Model T pick-up. It would be Chevrolet and Dodge who sparked the pick-up market and ramping up production after the war effort during the Second World War.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the pick-up truck started out as a box attached to vehicles like the Ford Model T
But what gave rise to the pick-up truck during its formative years? Smithsonian Magazine attributed the rise of the pick up truck to the ‘mechanization and consolidation of Southern agriculture’, noting, ‘Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating rapidly after 1945, with mules proving no match for the tractor in planting and cultivating his fields, the farmer needed to make not just the production but the transportation of his precious crop more efficient.’ This is where the pick-up truck became the most practical option. The pick-up truck became a multi duty utility for families with small budgets. Driving to church, the grocery store, to school. The pick-up truck could do it all. As farmers owned plots of land, their children were taught to drive them and so a tradition of passing down the torch was born. Children fulfilled chores for their parents who were working on the farm. But the vehicle was more than just a means to an end, it enabled the children to remain connected with the local community and attend school, which without a car would be impractical.
The Ford F-series went from heavy duty to lifestyle icon
The first Ford F-series came onto the market in 1948 up to 1952. The first F-series was a modest vehicle, having a modest 3.7 liter 95 horse-power engine. The second generation was released in 1953 up to 1956 and marked the iconic naming convention that is used today, the F-1 to later become the F-100 and so on. The F-series came onto the market after the post-war recovery of the United States. The economy was rapidly growing and the suburbs expanded far past the city outskirts. It was a time of consumerism, Americans filled homes with modern utilities and purchased new cars. The economy wasn’t the only thing that was booming. This was the moment the baby boom generation was born, redefining the demographic make-up of the societies around the world.
Another important factor that spurred mobility across the United States that literally paved the way for the widespread adoption of the car among the nation’s populous was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The Federal government planned out one of the biggest infrastructure projects in its existence, where it would lay down 41,000 miles of interstate and defense highways. This would ensure inter-connectivity across the country and would serve as a quick evacuation in case of a nuclear bomb strike. The latter might seem far fetched, but with the second world war still freshly engraved in people’s memories. Yet, the Reichautonbahn became the main inspiration for the plan. The combined effort would amount up to $26 billion dollars of which the federal government paid 90% of the construction costs. Today we see the effects, where the nation has become ‘a nation of drivers’ as History.com would label it.
With the tenth generation, the F-series received a major design overhaul compared to the more subtle changes it received in decades prior.
In 1957 the F-series received a redesign and a larger exterior and a four-wheel version was available in 1959. In 1965, the F-series received a new twin-I-beam system, which was introduced with the slogan, ‘Drives like a car, works like a truck.’ Car and Driver noted that whilst this was true, owners complained about faster tire degradation. In the same year the F-250 could be ordered as a four-door version. During this period, manufacturers kept reinforcing the work horse capabilities of the pick-up truck through their advertising. Not only as a utility vehicle, but also its versatility as a leisure vehicle. In 1962 Chevrolet boasted that its pick-up could also function as a camper van during hikes. Dodge did the same in 1964, where it highlighted that its pick-up could be converted into a camper within just 15 minutes. Ford promoted its independent front axles one year later. Promoting the new revolutionary suspicion which could conquer the toughest of terrains, and in 1976 pushing the comfort of the system. It became clear that manufacturers wanted to boost not only the tough jobs pick-up trucks had been doing for decades prior, but they could also fill multiple roles such as during camping and hiking trips.
With the dawn of the sixth generation during the period of 1973 up to 1979, the F-150 was introduced in 1975, which became more popular than the F-100 which was eventually cancelled in 1983. We can see this in the sales figures where the F-100 sold 133,590 units and the F-150 with 173,050 units sold. The seventh generation entered the market in 1980 and was replaced by the eight generation in 1987, which was the 50th anniversary of the F-150. New technologies marked the modern version of the reliable F-series, with the F-150 receiving a subtle design change and receiving power steering, power brakes and rear anti-lock braking. At the introduction of the ninth generation in 1992, the F-series sold more units than the Volkswagen Beetle, becoming the world’s best-selling vehicle. With the tenth generation, the F-series received a major design overhaul compared to the more subtle changes it received in decades prior. It was at this moment the F-150 would be branded as a lifestyle vehicle. In a press release Ford remarked, ‘1997 marked the beginning of a split for F-Series into two distinct platforms – the 10th-generation F-150 was geared toward light-duty truck customers, while new F-250 and F-350 Super Duty brand trucks debuted in 1999 targeting heavy-duty commercial vehicle buyers.’ The pick-up truck would be further refined as a lifestyle vehicle with the eleventh generation, whilst toning down on the soft spoken edges which drove some buyers away and made the vehicle look more aggressive. Car and Driver noted, ‘Ford took a back-to-basics approach in designing the new F-150.’ This bet paid off, as the F-series sold 939,511 units. The highest annual sales to date.
A marketing job well done
As with all product success, nothing comes with a hefty dose of marketing prowess to accompany it. Ford has been advertising for the F-series for decades. The ads were radical displays of the toughness of the pick-up truck such as dropping a Ford Ranger out of an airplane. We won’t run through all of them here, but I want to briefly highlight some defining advertising that has grounded the F-series into American culture and reinforced the image of the F-series and in particular the F-150 as the staple of American living.
When going back to 1997, the moment Ford decided to split the Ford F-series into separate entities, making it more of a lifestyle vehicle, a marketing shift was established. Jean Halliday, from AdAge remarked, ‘The 1997 model was marketed nationally as “Ford tough” with what Ford says was the most expensive truck ad push in its history. Competitive Media Reporting shows Ford spent $87.6 million.’ Furthermore, Ford saw a large demand in luxury options, such as CD-players and leather seats. Through the power of deduction, we can observe that even though Ford was smashing every dollar it had laying around to position the Ford F-series as a workhorse, the signs were already there, that the pick-up was becoming more than just a mud magnet.
In 2006, Ford emphasized the rural way of living through advertising around the NFL and NASCAR. They partnered up with Toby Keith, a popular country musician through the Hookin Up and Hangin’ Out concert tour. It’s an extension of the four-year partnership the brand has with Toby Keith. In 2016 The Ford F-150 became the official truck for the NFL for three years. Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president for marketing said about the partnership, ‘[it will] put the spotlight on fans and players who show toughness, smarts and determination on and off the field, and who deserve to be recognized for that.’ The F-series super duty would receive a game tailgate, during game days the pick up would serve a shuttle and a contest for free Super Bowl tickets would be held. The reason I mention the NFL series is no coincidence, as it houses high viewership with the Super Bowl being the absolute king in terms of viewership. When looking at the 2016 – 2016 NFL season, matches drew tens of millions of viewers in the United States. The Patriots vs. Falcons Super Bowl drew 111.3 million viewers, followed by Packers vs. Cowboys in the Divisional round with 48.5 million and Steelers vs. Patriots in the Conference round attracting 48 million viewers. Affiliation with the league as a brand is a key component of creating high exposure and Ford further established the F-series American roots by investing heavily in the partnership. In 2017, whilst not focusing on the F-series itself, created a Super Bowl commercial through its ‘Go Further’ campaign. Stephen Odell, Ford executive vice president, Global Marketing, Sales and Service said in a press release, ‘Ford was founded on the promise of providing affordable transportation solutions to millions of customers, and this commitment still drives us today.’ When looking through the marketing fluff, we can trace back the promise of Ford to deliver a reliable vehicle and an affordable price, with one of those vehicles being the Ford F-series.
In January 2021 Ford Launched the new F-150 with an appropriate lifestyle campaign across the United States. Dibrie Guerrero, multicultural marketing manager at Ford said about the campaign in a press release, ‘The ‘More Than Tough’ campaign recognizes and celebrates the spirit of American ingenuity.’ Further saying, ’By developing many innovative features to accommodate the diverse needs of its F-150 owners, Ford elevates what’s possible with a little creativity and the right pickup truck.’ The ads would air on television and use digital and social media campaigns.
In the same year, 2021, Ford announced the Ford F-150 Lighting, the full electric version of the pick-up truck. The vehicle is part of the $22 billion transformation plan at Ford. Kumar Galhotra, Ford president at the Americas and International Markets Group said about the announcement, ‘We’re not here to make an electric truck for the few – Ford is committed to building one that solves real problems for real people.’ Which falls perfectly in line with the massive popularity of the vehicle. Such an announcement did not fall onto deaf ears.
The new vehicle was heralded with enthusiasm from the Natural Resources Defense Council, who fights for a clean future. They labeled the new vehicle as the change necessary for a brighter future, not only for the environment, but also for job creation. They said, ‘The United States will become a global leader in building and selling pollution-free electric cars and trucks if the industry and federal government come together to make it happen.’ It’s a bold statement, but understandable as the popularity of the F150 cannot be understated, having enough prowess to move the market in a cleaner direction. We can also not underestimate the symbolic significance. One of the oldest automakers decided to overhaul one of its most profitable products. The bold move paid off as the Ford F-150 Lightning already proved a success before it even rolled out of the factory. Ford got 150,000 pre-orders for the Lightning and therefore decided it would invest an additional $250 million to keep up with the demand to reach a target production of 80,000 annually.
A wide network of dealerships
The marketing of Ford plays an important role in making sure the F-series receives the awareness it deserves. But at the end of the day, the end goal is moving potential buyers to the dealerships to place their order. And Ford has been revamping and strengthening its dealership model in recent years.
In 2017, Mark Fields, Ford CEO and Stephen Odell, Executive Vice-President for Marketing, Sales and Service spoke to Business Insider about the changing landscape for dealerships. He affirmed that the franchise model is a core asset of the company, helping the company obtain market presence. But Ford is also aware of the changing consumer behavior which is moving more online and the rapidly changing market for autonomous vehicles. The latter will potentially the role of the automobile on its head, which raises concerns with dealerships who see their business model threatened. They are now looking towards their parent company for guidance. Fields, noted that Ford can’t look into the future, but confirmed that the dealers would become part of the journey, saying that he’s seen how dealerships can adapt to a changing consumer landscape.
In 2020 announced the Ford Blue Advantage platform, a marketplace for selling used vehicles. The 3,100 dealerships affiliated with Ford can list their used-vehicle inventory. It’s a response to new start-up competitors who cut out the middleman and directly sell to consumers. Ford stated that one in three million used Ford cars is sold through their dealerships. Moving its inventory online, will make it more readily available for new and current customers. The platform officially launched in February 2021. In a press release Andrew Frick, vice president, U.S. marketing at Ford noted, ‘Providing a great digital experience is paramount today, but we know customers still want to touch, smell and feel a vehicle before they buy it. Ford Blue Advantage offers the best of both worlds, enabling customers to shop online or come into a dealership, or a combination of both.’
The Ford F-150 is a lifestyle
We haven’t answered the most important question, how did the Ford F-series become so popular. Pick-up trucks had some momentum going for them in the early days when rural America and its farms started to transform their operations from mostly manual labor to a more industrialized approach. Horses were replaced by cars and those cars were transformed into do it yourself pick-up trucks, which attracted the attention of the automakers which saw an opportunity to cater to this newly formed market. The pick-up truck was designed as a powerful solution for farmers who needed a vehicle who could move a family to the grocery store and simultaneously.
Jiyan Cidaz spokesperson at Ford said to CNN, ‘It used to be a workhorse vehicle. You bought a truck because you needed a truck. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice.’ CNN noted that the F-150 today is much more comparable to a lifestyle vehicle, saying ‘Pickups are now more likely to be in suburban driveways, helping families haul around kids in the back seat as well as gardening supplies and lumber from their trips to Home Depot.’ Through clever marketing affiliations Ford reaffirmed the position Ford and the F-series was supposed to have in the country. The F-series became and still is an integral part of the daily lives of many Americans through its evolution from a heavy duty vehicle to lifestyle icon. Through its entry into the EV-domain, it will set an example for other manufacturers and become part of the world of tomorrow. Ford invested heavily into its dealerships network, taking them along the journey and smoothing out the customer relationship through its online platform.