Great marketing is the key to success of any product. Considering that it takes several billion dollars to launch a new car, the marketing for that car must be spot on or the company risks sending those billions of dollars down the drain. Looking back, the marketing and public relations campaign of the early Mustang was arguably the most innovative and successful campaign in automotive history. Ford tapped the J. Walter Thompson Agency for the job, a long-standing partner with Ford. J. Walter Thompson was up to the task and ready to push the envelope in an effort to launch the new Mustang.
The Mustang was like nothing else before it. With its long list of options, two body styles and a powertrain list that could turn it into either a gas sipping personal car or a powerful street racer, the Mustang could be ordered to meet almost anyone’s needs. The exterior of the Mustang was contemporary and the interior was sporty, yet the car had an extremely low price tag. Looking back, it appears that all of the stars were aligned when the Mustang was announced. No one at Ford or J. Walter Thompson could imagine the ride they were in for.
It’s important to note that the Mustang almost never made it into production. The brass at Ford, primarily a group of MBA types were not in favor of spending the money for this new “youth orientated” personal sports car. Lee Iacocca, at the time Ford’s Marketing Director, and Donald Frey, Ford’s Senior Product Planner had a tough time convincing Henry Ford II to let them produce the Mustang. When he was asked to provide market research data to prove his case, Iacocca and Frey had their staff “fabricate” research data that showed guaranteed success. After reviewing the bogus data with Henry, he reluctantly agreed, but at the same time said to Frey (and in essence Iacocca) “It’s your ass if the car doesn’t sell.” One must keep in mind that events other than marketing were in Ford’s favor. First, it was the emergence of the youth market, a time when the baby boomers were coming of age and they wanted something totally different. Another favorable factor was that Ford had no real competition in 1964. GM certainly had the Corvair and Chevy II, and Plymouth had their Valiant-based Barracuda, but neither of these really excited the motoring public. Nothing like the Mustang had ever been produced before.
One of the best marketing angles Ford implemented was the decision to announce the Mustang in the spring. Typically new cars were revealed in the fall of each model year but Iacocca’s team wanted to have all the attention possible from the press and hindsight shows they certainly received it. Ford began working with the J. Walter Thompson Agency to put together a marketing plan to end all marketing plans. Their goal was to announce the Mustang in every available media to build excitement of the masses. Prior to launch, a series of “embargoed” press briefings took place in early 1964. Ford’s pubic affairs group started “leaking” details of the car to the press in an effort to build the Mustang mania. Ford went so far as to disassemble a Mustang, bring it to the observation platform in the Empire State Building and reassemble it for a press showing. Furthermore, Ford demonstrated the reliability of the Mustang by having members of the press participate in a massive Mustang rally from New York to Dearborn, where all seventy cars made it home without a single problem.
Their next strategy was to have one Mustang in every one of their 8,100 dealerships on April 17, 1964, the day of its unveiling. To accomplish this task, the first production Mustang, a Wimbledon White convertible, rolled off the Dearborn assembly line on March 9 with the remaining unites distributed nationwide for the official unveiling. On the evening prior to the official introduction at the World’s Fair, Ford ran commercials of the new Mustang on all three television networks simultaneously, which were seen by an estimated 29 million viewers. They then followed this up with a full-page ad placed in 2,600 newspapers across the United States. To gain more press, Ford entered into an agreement to display a new Mustang in the lobby of 200 Holiday Inn Hotels and at 15 of the country’s busiest airports. During the same time, Newsweek and Time ran cover stories on Ford’s Iacocca and his Mustang.
At the World’s Fair, Ford was the star of the “Wonder Rotunda” and the Disney-designed “Magic Skyway” exhibit. Fairgoers could sit in one of twelve white Mustang convertibles (with the powrtrain and gas tank removed) and ride the Skyway through exhibits that displayed the Earth’s past from the age of the dinosaur to the “City of Tomorrow.”
With the combination of print ads, television ads and the World’s Fair launch, the Mustang became the most successful new car in history and created near-pandemonium at many of the Ford dealerships nationwide. Ford took nearly 22,000 orders on the day the car went on sale. By the end of the first weekend nearly four million people had stopped into a dealership to see the new Mustang. Ford knew it had a winner on its hands but was committed to continue the marketing blitz for continued success.
Over 100,000 cars were sold in the first 90 days, an unheard of amount at that time. Due to the incredible demand, Ford added the Metuchen, New Jersey, assembly plant to the list of assembly plants building Mustangs, which up until then, were produced only in Dearborn, Michigan and San Jose, California.
It was clear Ford launched the right car at the right time. Because much of the car was Falcon based, the base list price was just $2,368, well within most people’s budget. In addition to the low price, both the print and television ads illustrated that owning a Mustang would be a life changing experience. An ad from a November 6, 1964 Life magazine showed a Mustang along with a finely dressed gentleman and a beautiful woman. The ad read “Two weeks ago this man was a bashful schoolteacher in a small mid-western city. Add Mustang. Now he has three steady girls, is on first name terms with the best headwaiter in town, is society’s darling. All the above came with his Mustang.” Other ads showed a new Mustang with a team of wild horses suggesting great performance from the Mustang.
In addition to the print and TV exposure, Ford managed to get an early Mustang into the James Bond movie Goldfinger, where Bond is chased by a white Mustang convertible. Another marketing opportunity arose when the Mustang was chosen as the Indy 500 Pace Car. Even with all of the above-mentioned successes, the marketing team was not close to being done. The publicity push continued by licensing many Mustang inspired products. Everything from a Motorized Mustang GT model that sold for $4.95, a Mustang Midget children’s pedal car priced at $12.95 to the $537 “Mustang Jr.” gas powered children’s car. Powered by a two horsepower engine, the “Mustang Jr.” had a top speed of 20 mph. The marketing ploys pushed sales higher than Iacocca had ever dreamed.
During the first year production run, Ford added the 2+2 fastback to the coupe and convertible lineup. Later in the model year, more powerful engines, a “Pony” interior and the “GT Equipment Group” were offered giving the marketing team even more ammunition. These changes, along with a plethora of comfort options allowed a Mustang to be tailored to any individual. Ford had three assembly plants running full tilt just to keep up with demand.
One of the last efforts to increase visibility for 1965 came with the agreement by Ford and Carrol Shelby to produce 36 specially prepped 2+2 R-model Mustangs known as the GT-350. The cars captured the 1965 SCCA B/Production title and showed that the Mustang was more than just a personal car; it could be a purebred racecar. Following its success, Ford released a limited production street version of Shelby’s racecar. The Shelby GT-350 was a true muscle car and the Hi-Po engine provided more than enough power. The Hertz Rent-A-Car Corporation wanted in on the excitement and ordered 200 black and gold GT-350s for their fleet.
When you look back on the massive amount of advertising and public relations effort put forth by the J. Walter Thompson Agency, the Mustang was destined to be a hit. But all the marketing in the world won’t sell a car if the car is not the right one at the right time. Ford was successful with the Mustang because it was clearly the right car at the right time. J. Walter Thompson just helped Ford get the word out. And the rest as they say is history.