Ford Motor Co.
The seat fabric bolster for the 2015 Ford Mustang contains 54% percent recycled content from post-consumer and post-industrial recycled yarns.

How the Mustang Got Its Mojo Back

Dec. 14, 2018
To capture the car’s elusive emotional connection, a Ford engineer embarked on a cross-country tour of Mustang clubs and met with women-only focus groups.

Willie Davidson, former senior vice president and chief styling officer of Harley-Davidson, once said, “Form follows function, but both form and function report to emotion.”  There is no doubt that emotional connection plays an important role in customers’ buying decisions and their product experiences. However, capturing this elusive characteristic—like catching lightning in a bottle—has proved incredibly difficult for many products.

The Ford Mustang is all about emotional connection. There is no logical reason to buy a Ford Mustang. There are many more rational transportation choices available to consumers. Owning and driving a Mustang is an experience the customer wants that is extremely difficult to describe, much less precisely quantify. For example, it can be a visible statement to the world of the customer’s individualism. So, just how do you go about understanding the visceral experience and personal identity that custom- ers expect to get from Mustang? While we do not have a stepwise formula, we believe that there is a great deal we can learn from Dave Pericak’s experience in gaining a deep understanding of, creating a compelling vision for, and delivering the very successful 2015 Mustang.

When Pericak first took on the role of CE and the responsibility for developing the next model of the Mustang, the brand was running a distant second to the Camaro in sales and had been trailing the Chevrolet product for the previous five years. Mustang had clearly lost its emotional connection with its customer base, and Pericak had to figure out how to get it back. “The Mustang following is cult-like,” Pericak says, “and a very unforgiving cult at that. If you don’t get it right, they [the customers] know it immediately, and they are not shy about letting you know.” There are more than 250 Mustang clubs around the world, whose members take Mustang ownership seriously. Mustang had lost its “mojo,” and customers were definitely letting Ford know.

Pericak had been a “Mustang guy” as long as he could remember. He had owned several, worked on more than a few, and even proposed to his wife in a Mustang. Mustang was, in fact, part of the reason he had joined Ford. He lived and breathed Mustang. Even though he grew up with Mustang, he realized he needed to take the time to study and think deeply about the emotional connection between Mustang and its customers. He needed to understand where Mustang had gone wrong. How had it broken faith with its core? He needed to go and see and to talk with customers of all kinds.

He started by attending Mustang events across the country, listening to all the exuberant stories of multi-generation ownership and how Mustang was intricately and inseparably woven into the stories of customers’ lives. He studied the people. He experienced owners’ pride and passion as they detailed their Mustangs with a toothbrush. He shared their ear-to-ear smiles as they started engines and heard that rumble. He saw the Mustang tattoos. He found elaborate airbrushing, literally one-of-a-kind artwork, tucked under the hood. He witnessed customers’ transformation as they got behind the wheel

From Pericak’s observations, he began to understand what Mustang meant to these people. It was a form of individual expression. Customers were flexing their muscles, flexing their individuality. He knew that every detail of the next Mustang had to be about this raw, emotional expression. He also knew that anything that did not enhance this experience did not belong on a Mustang. He would constantly challenge the product team on decisions: Is it personally expressive? Does it look strong? Is it bold and edgy? Does it say Mustang? If the answer is no, get rid of it. 

Then Pericak did something else that is fairly rare for this type of car. He met with groups of women. Dave felt that they had been overlooked in the past, both as customers and as influencers, and that this was a big mistake. He wanted to understand their perspective. Why did some sports cars resonate with women while others seemed to almost offend them? At the end of one of the discussions, Dave tried to summarize what he heard: “So what you’re saying is you like bad boys, but you don’t like assholes.” After they were done laughing, they responded, “That’s it exactly.”

Through these discussions Dave came to understand that if the vehicle’s styling says angry and aggressive, it did not resonate with women at all. But if the car looks intriguing, a bit edgy, strong, and confident, that gets their attention. These sessions had a big influence on styling. Pericak and his team would review concepts and ask, “Is this angry, or is it confident and strong?” He and his team engaged many of those same women in early reviews of the Mustang’s styling. These sessions fundamentally changed the design language for the program.

Pericak and his small team began to sift through everything they had learned, trying to understand where Mustang had lost its way and, more importantly, where it could find the way back. Based on their collective experiences, it was clear that Mustang had to be far more strong, unique, and bold. At the same time, developers were cautious of creating some- thing that looked ticked off or cartoonish. It had to stand out in a way only Mustang could—authentic, true to its roots, and not pretending to be something it was not. It must push limits and be a source of personal expression for its owner. Every inch must be uniquely Mustang.

Rebuilding the emotional Mustang experience would clearly need to begin with artistic styling. He had to get this right, so Pericak headed right to Kemal Curic, chief designer for Mustang, where they began poring over concept sketches and scale models. They selected the Joe Lewis Fist monument in downtown Detroit as a symbol of fearlessness, strength, and power that Mustang would embody. This was a symbol that represented the path-breaking independence of both the fighter and the original Mustang launched in 1965. Success in delivering this experience lay in the details of hundreds of decisions by Pericak, Curic, and their team. We will share three from the program:

1. Designing the right look. A large part of portraying the appearance of latent power in the exterior design comes from the Mustang’s “haunches.” It makes the car look like it’s poised and ready to pounce. Strong “hips” are essential to this design cue. That is the area of the rear quarter above the rear wheels. The design team modeled count- less versions of this area until finally landing on a look that was just right. 

Of course, design is not the only element in bringing a car to market; it must be built, and unfortunately, some of the best styling created impossible manufacturing conditions. The rear quarter panel design was particularly challenging for stamping. Not willing to compromise, Pericak reached out directly to the members of the body and stamping engineering team to ask for their help. In the past they might have simply marked the styling infeasible and vetoed the design. Instead, a small team was assigned to collaboratively develop several significant innovations in the stamping process in order to deliver this critical design characteristic. The team delivered—the Mustang looks like it’s in motion when it’s just sitting there.

2. No-compromise fighting for critical customer features.  Pericak knew that sequential rear turn signals are another iconic part of Mustang design DNA. “It can be pitch black out and you flip on the turn signal and instantly you know this is a Mustang.” The problem was that those signals put the program about $20 over budget, and he was under tremendous pressure to remove them from the program. As he feared, senior leadership finally directed him to remove them from the car. He refused, saying, “You have the authority to remove me from this job, but you put me here for a reason. I am representing the customer, and I know these tail lamps are critical. I am not going to remove them.” After an awkward silence, the leader said, “Okay, keep the lamps, but you owe me $20 by the next meeting.” Dave worked with Jim’s body team and other engineering groups to offset the cost elsewhere and delivered the lamps. He was willing to put his job on the line to deliver what he knew was right. 

3. Delivering emotion in the car’s functioning. Sit in a Mustang and push the start button. Feel that throaty rumble? Now step down on the accelerator. The deep growl quickens your pulse and gives you goose bumps. This is what power feels and sounds like, pure and simple. This is no accident. Pericak worked with powertrain engineering to tune more than 50 different exhaust systems to arrive at just this sound. It is all part of the Mustang experience. It makes us think of the Harley-Davidson sound that was actually patented.

According to Pericak, “It has to be a design that calls to you—a product you have to have; a design that is unmistakably pure Mustang and not trying to be anything else. It is an emotional experience that channels Steve McQueen in Bullet, iconic American muscle, and Joe Lewis’s fist.”

Pericak lived and breathed Mustang culture. He really knew his customers and knew what was most important to his customer. Armed with this knowledge, he battled, pushed, and took total ownership for his product. He fought hard against tremendous organization pressures to com- promise, even to the point of risking his job. This is very different from bringing the voice of the customer into the conversation through a tool like quality function deployment, a market survey, or focus-group data. Data and these tools can certainly be useful, but they do not replace deep understanding, vision, and leadership.

All of Pericak’s efforts paid big dividends, starting with a 2015 Mustang sales improvement of 49 percent over the previous year. The Mustang also:

■     Outsold the Camaro in 2015 by 37%

■     Continues to outsell both the Camaro and Challenger up to the time of this writing

■     Remains the bestselling sports car in the world at the time of this writing

■     Was named No. 1 “dream car,” finishing one place above the Tesla Model S and five spots above the Camaro

Excerpt from Designing the Future: How Ford, Toyota, and Other World-Class Organizations Use Lean Product Development to Drive Innovation and Transform Their Business by James M. Morgan and Jeffrey K. Liker, p.44-49 (McGraw-Hill Education, October 2018).  

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