Lessons from the World’s Most Famous Car Salesman
by Dan Stefano, on Jul. 9, 2019
Car salesmen get a bad rap, trying to peddle vehicles while burdened with pop culture-fueled stereotypes as swindlers and lowlifes. Indeed, there are fast-talkers with dubious intentions, but most are just regular folks doing a job.
And some are legends.
Lee Iacocca, the auto industry titan who was the face of Ford as it soared to new heights with a series of masterful campaigns, died July 2 at age 94. One of America’s best-known businessmen in his heyday, he has since garnered a mixed reputation, after playing a role developing one of Ford’s most disastrous vehicles, making unpopular-but-necessary decisions as an executive with a then-bankrupt Chrysler, and amid revelations that many of his best ideas may not have actually been his.
But Iacocca’s marketing acumen and status as a communicator are mostly unimpeachable. Early on, he recognized cars were more than a means of getting from point A to point B, playing up the sense of freedom, style and personality that permeates the industry’s messaging today.
As Iacocca displayed an ability to connect with consumers that few possess, some major waypoints in his career have timeless lessons for anyone who works in communications. Let’s examine a handful.
- The 1956 Ford: Iacocca’s first major success came as an assistant sales manager in Ford’s Philadelphia district. Amid sluggish sales, he concocted a simple promotion: “56 for 56.” After a 20 percent down payment, customers could get a ’56 Ford with three years of $56 monthly payments. The alliterative campaign took off, catching fire with a growing middle class that was about to take the auto industry into the stratosphere. Iacocca’s district went from last place in the nation in units sold to first.
Those results earned him a promotion, and four years later he became a vice president and general manager of Ford Motor Co.’s titular Ford division. It all started with “56 for 56,” which stands as a testament to the value of a great promotion with a catchy title. They still draw in audiences and likely always will
- The Mustang: Iacocca’s memoir offers this description of the quintessential American muscle car: “It had to be a sports car but more than a sports car. We wanted to develop a car that you could drive to the country club on Friday night, to the drag strip on Saturday and to church on Sunday.”
Understanding his market and demographics, Iacocca recognized young car buyers wanted something fresh and exciting – and many had the extra cash for a fun second car. The low-cost Ford Mustang was an instant success upon its debut in 1964, and while many (convincingly) dispute Iacocca’s role in its actual development, his spin on that pretty set of wheels is still felt today. Like the higher-end Corvette, the Mustang tells a uniquely American story about powerful engineering and the freedom of the road – and Iacocca knew it.
- The Pinto: The biggest failure of Iacocca’s career had horrific consequences. In a rush to make a subcompact car that could compete with increasingly popular imports, Iacocca, who became Ford’s president in 1970, sped along the development of the Ford Pinto. And in a subtle mirror of his “56 for 56” campaign, he wanted a vehicle that weighed no more than 2,000 pounds and sold for $2,000. Those constraints contributed to the development of a fast-selling but incredibly dangerous car, with a flawed fuel tank that could explode upon being rear-ended.
Lives were lost – reports say as many as 180 died in rear-impact-related fires, and hundreds more were burned. Ford eventually was charged with reckless homicide after three teenage girls died in Indiana, but the company was acquitted. In his autobiography, Iacocca claimed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s then-director said, “It’s really no worse than any other small car. You don’t have an engineering problem as much as you have a legal and public-relations problem.” Iacocca blamed management for the failure, including himself, but he denied the company cut corners. Still, he was fired by Ford shortly after a 1978 recall of 1.5 million Pintos.
In the end, there is no defending something that ends in such tragedy, but it does highlight that a company needs crisis communications training and ready plans for any unforeseen result.
- The Minivan: It’s almost hard to believe there was a time without minivans, the once-ubiquitous, lumpy family vehicle that has had to make room for SUVs and crossovers over the past couple decades. Today, minivans are jokingly – and unfairly – derided for being “soccer moms” vehicles. But there’s no denying the extra space is useful for busy families.
While small vans were no revolutionary development in the ‘80s – ever see those old-school Volkswagen minibuses? – plans for vans aimed at families were floated at Ford and Chrysler. After Iacocca joined Chrysler, he pushed the wilting automaker’s Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan to market, recognizing their potential. And now everyone gets to soccer practice with their stuff easily packed away.
The lesson here? Big ideas might fail – but when they work, they can change an industry. That holds true in communications, just as it does in the auto industry. Don’t be afraid to dream, take risks and adopt the next big thing when you see it. Iacocca, for all his flaws, wasn’t – and he became the world’s most famous car salesman.