Ford’s Focus on The Youth Market Actually Kind of Worked
Ford's early marketing efforts to the youth were surprisingly good, actually.
Only three things are for certain: Taxes, death, and brands wanting to hook the kids while they’re young. Some efforts at youth pandering aren’t bad. Wendy’s snappy Twitter presence was pretty entertaining, and European budget airline RyanAir’s Tik Tok game seems to be unrivaled. Others are pretty cringe, like BMW’s nearly universally hated advertisement for the ugly as heck iX electric SUV. Believe it or not, about 20 years ago and for about five minutes, Ford was surprisingly good at pulling this off.
Back in the year 2000, Ford wanted to drop the image from the lame, suppository-looking Escort and usher in a brand new era of new cars that people, you know, actually wanted to buy. See, Ford’s mid to late 1990s cars were mostly also-rans in their respective segments. The 1996-1999 Ford Taurus was a floppy stylistic and critical dud, a disastrous follow-up to a once-iconic sedan, and the weirdly-sized Contour had terminally low sales. The contemporary Escort was okay, but Ford had a completely radical (for the era) replacement in the works: the “New Edge” Ford Focus. Ford’s marketing efforts courted club kids and Detroit techno artists.
Ford beat Toyota and Scion to the punch by a couple of years with DJ sets, online games, and the “Focus247.com” website. The Focus’s design, equipment, and ethos were decidedly for a younger clientele than the kind of stodgy and miserly reputation the Escort had. So, Ford turned up the heat, with a new style of marketing to get young butts, into Ford-branded small car seats.
Looking back on it, Focus247 and Ford’s efforts in supporting artists seem organic and much more authentic than most any other efforts by modern car companies. I contacted Ford’s PR people, and they reached into the depths of their archives, and gave me a bit of insight into the past, with articles and information that are nearly completely lost to time.
Come with me in the Car Bibles Time Machine®—a Land Rover Discovery that runs on hot takes instead of plutonium, which is safer for the environment anyway—and let’s take a trip back to the year 1999. Society was at the start of something good. The era of cheap internet was starting to get in the swing, as more people across the globe got internet access. Fears over Y2K took a backseat to a strong economy and a lack of anxiety over things like the Cold War or terrorism or pandemics. And for Ford (and every other brand, really) the main concern was getting those budding online kids that were charmingly called Gen Y to buy cars. Ideally, Fords.
Ford’s marketing strategy included some kind of clever, maybe a bit corny today, but very wild gimmicks for the day. In 1999, it did a series of 30-second ads for the MTV awards, filmed live, during the awards show. Was it cheesy? In retrospect, maybe so – but it was new! It was cool! It was for The Youth®, and way more interesting than anyone else was doing back then.
Kind of cheesy, kind of charming, these ads were later rerecorded and folded into the rest of the Focus marketing plan.
More pertinently, the ads advertised Focus247—the hub of everything Focus. Before I sent Ford an email, www.Focus247.com went to an error 404 page, as no one seemed to have the domain anymore. But, it seems like my inquiry may have jogged Ford’s memory, as now the link redirects back to the Ford website. You’re welcome, Ford. Car Bibles is always down to help.
Anyway, the Focus 247 website was a clearinghouse for information about the Focus and all the cool events and stuff they did too. In 2001 and 2002, Ford completely bankrolled the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, prompting a temporary name change to the Focus Electronic Music Festival. During those years, the festival was free, and Detroit, the home of American techno music, had a space that at least supported local art and culture. Ford called it a gift to the city.
All of that energy expended could be for naught if the Focus was just another boring, uncompetitive American compact car with no redeeming qualities. Luckily, the Focus was actually quite good; sharp to drive, boldly attractive for its time, and paired with a reasonable price tag meant that drew tons of young buyers its way. Ford’s efforts seemed to be working, in 2001, they said that half of Focus buyers were aged 35 or younger.
The folks at Ford’s archives sent me some other cool information, too. Early Ford Focus owners could get a free G-Shock watch to match their cars. Or the pet package, that came with a water dish that was color-matched to the vehicle. The Xplod and Kona editions directly targeted to young people, with a bumpin’ sound system, or native support to carry mountain bikes and hiking equipment.
Ford wanted to sell Focuses and make money. I mean, it’s a car company. Yet, the way it went about actually courting young people felt more genuine and considered than the efforts by automakers today. Ford’s sponsoring a big techno festival as a gift to Detroit, and acknowledgment of that musical subculture feels more in tune and respectful than a cheap thirty-second self-deprecating ad.
Arguably, Ford’s youth-oriented push worked because of its newness. Within the decade after Focus247, kids had gotten wise to marketing tactics that courted them specifically. Authenticity—or at least, the pretense of it—turned to cringe very quickly. Automakers started asking questions, like was investing in marketing to the youth really worth it? They shelled out millions of dollars to get broke kids to buy cheap, not very profitable cars, rather than courting the older buyers with more cash.
Today, many automakers have all but abandoned the youth and lower-income market, with the big three preferring to shove you in the most expensive truck or crossover they can get you on. Still, it’s fun to remember the glory days of Early Internet, when Rosanne was still funny, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” was bumpin’ on the radio, and the now-dead Ford Focus was the new hotness. Good times, y’all.