What if someone could predict your every need, want or desire before you even knew what it was? That’s a down and dirty way of explaining what Sheryl Connelly does for Ford as Manager, Global Trends and Futuring. In her role, she looks at consumer trends in five areas: social, technological, economic, environmental and political. “If we can identify and track the right trends, it will give us some insight into the forces that will eventually shape consumer values, attitudes and behaviors,” Sheryl explained. She studies trends to offer insight on what consumers may want in the years to come.
Despite the “Futuring” in her job title, “our fundamental premise is that no one can predict the future,” Sheryl said. Rather, it’s about making assumptions, and that’s not an easy task. “The only way to navigate in the face of uncertainty is to consider a broad range of possibilities and assess how we would fare in each of those possibilities,” Sheryl explained. “If we can find a business plan that works in a varied state of future scenarios, then we don’t need to know the future. We just know that we have a really robust business plan that can weather ups and downs.” In other words, Ford will be ready to thrive regardless of how events unfold, and when you can do that, you don’t need a crystal ball.
“I do a lot of work upstream with engineers in advanced research and engineering who are deciding what technologies to invest in over the next 10 to 20 years. I also work with design, product development and advanced product marketing,” Sheryl said. “If you are developing a product at the front end, my hope is to shape and form the products and services that Ford eventually brings to market. Our conversations start with the things we have absolutely no control over.”
Trend indicators come from a variety of influences. “We work with thought leaders outside the automotive industry, saying here are stories that we’ve crafted about what the future might look like, tell us what you think we’ve got right and wrong. They often change our whole viewpoint of a scenario. It’s great to get these outside voices that see the world differently and pair them up with the expertise we have in-house.”
For example, the economic recession meant each one of us was probably being extra careful about our purchases and have also held onto products longer, rather than buying what we’ve wanted right away. “Translated into car speak, that means consumers may keep an existing vehicle instead of buying a new one and try to upgrade it to get the new features they want,” Sheryl explained. “So the company might take that concept and look at ways of making more cool accessories available through vehicle personalization.” Ford has responded to the trend of an increased desire for personalization by adding features such as ambient lighting colors that can be changed to fit the driver’s mood, driver’s seats with customizable settings that adjust automatically with the push of a button and decal kits for the Fiesta.
“The appeal of accessories reflects on other trends in society, including the desire to personalize phones, computers and clothing.” said Sheryl. “People don’t customize to stand out from the crowd; they do it to create a more meaningful connection.” Brighter, more vibrant paint colors have been gaining momentum with buyers, and while black and silver still top the list, Ford responded with colors such as Lime Squeeze for the Fiesta and a Yellow Blaze Focus. New paints mixed with glass or metal flecks have also been a response to personalization.
Something else Ford was able to address was seamless connectivity between technologies in consumers’ house, office and car, as well as safety, infotainment and convenience while they’re on the road.
“Consumers today want to stay connected and they want the drive to be an experience, especially since the amount of time Americans spend in the car has nearly doubled in the last 10 years,” Sheryl noted. Remember infotainment 10 years ago? That was an in-dash compact disc player and speed control system. Now, voice-activated controls, real-time traffic and Wi-Fi mobile can be found on many 2011 Ford products, and vehicles equipped with SYNC® can stream Internet radio like Pandora and play music from USB plugged-in digital music players and memory sticks.
Today’s Ford vehicles are equipped with new technologies that make driving easier and safer too, including self-parallel parking, rear back-up cameras and rain-sensing wipers, while terrain management is available on the 2011 Explorer. “Consumers today are constantly bombarded with safety scares – from food contamination to lead paint in toys to violence – and that means they seek more safety in things they can control, such as the vehicles they want,” Sheryl said. To that end, 10 years ago the average car had at least two airbags; today, most vehicles have at least four, with some models equipped with up to 10 airbags. And the airbags themselves have improved – Ford is the first automaker to introduce inflatable second-row safety belts.
And that idyllic lifestyle of driving with the wind in your hair, not a care in the world might be a thing of the past.“We don’t have that many open roads any more; we don’t even have the gas to travel them. We need the time we spend in the car to be more productive. At Ford, we can’t give people more hours in the day, but we can make the time they spend in the car more comfortable, more luxurious.” Not to mention they’ll be behind the wheel of a vehicle that looks good to fellow commuters.