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Thursday, September 25, 2008 

Vol. 4 No. 9

The Flex Phenomena… Part II

As in the Movie “Used Cars” – You Have to Get INSIDE

I was privileged to be able to study, experience and ultimately educate on all of the unique product feature attributes of the Flex, and drove one for period of time this summer. Although I can tell you that a Crossover is nowhere near the type of car I have always driven (truth be told I’m a luxury car fan, I don’t even like SUV’s), the vehicle grew on me, and for the first time in my existence, I think, I can see myself driving a 6/7 passenger vehicle for more than a brief rental day or two. I have to tell you too, that, at least from the reactions on the road I got, as many people like the new daring design of the Flex as dislike it – when is the last time a new vehicle got thumbs up, horn blowing and “head out to window…what is that?” at even expressway speed? So people do either love it or hate it, but the people that love it, I can say first-hand, aren’t afraid to express themselves.

The real advantage to the Flex though, can’t be understood until someone gets in the car, feels the seats, sees firsthand the size and standard features, peruses a few of the “exclusive” options Ford packed in, and, of course, until one actually drives the vehicle. Again, I drive Jaguars mostly, and this thing drives better, and has better optional features, than a fully loaded up Jaguar XJ sedan, a vehicle that costs 50% to 100% more – I kid you not, it’s true (the GPS system is better, the sound system is better, it handles as well if not better, and those are the first things you notice, I can go on…).

In short, as most reviewers have said, the Flex packs all of the utilitarian features anyone would want, in flexible motif (for instance, it can tow up to 4500 lbs, yet it gets best in class gas mileage for a 6/7 passenger people mover at 24 mpg highway, the seats sit high yet its lower stance and entry construction make it the easiest of Crossovers to get in to and out of, etc.), but also has all of the tech toys found in the “coolest” of luxury vehicles. The thing just reeks cool and high tech inside its boxy euro-type frame (it may not be your style, but it is style).

Social Media and the Flex

Obviously, given my particular interests and observations, I’m very interested in how a new product launch of a game changing vehicle rolls out online these days, as I would have suspected that social media would be a factor and have an effect. The fact is, now, for the first time apart from any other truly polarizing vehicle introductions in the past (as mentioned above), social media, blogging, self expression on the Web is ubiquitous (along with high speed access). Like never before, like-minded “product evangelists” can find each other and congregate on the Web (and not have to physically travel to Spring Hill, when the Saturn was introduced, for instance), so one would suspect that the Flex has already felt some of the effects of social media.

True to form, ironically, while I have yet to see Ford Motor Company embrace the full power of social media for the Flex, a vehicle introduction which seems to be screaming social media if ever there was one, social media sites have grown up organically, quite a while ago, to foster like-minded Flex enthusiasts and early adopters.

Not surprisingly, an “institutionalized” product forum has grown up around the product, at FordFlexForum.com – I say institutionalized because this seems to be the forum for all Ford products, a chronicle for “Blue Over Forum,” the “Fusion Forum,” “Mustang Forum,” the “Taurus forum,” the “Lincoln MKS Forum,” etc., etc. even an “Eco Boost Forum”… it is out of Dearborn, MI, perhaps not a big surprise, so I don’t think that counts as a truly unbiased social media product. Not that it produces bad information, quite the reverse, it’s just that well, it may not produce the most “impartial,” “peer to peer” dialogue anytime soon, methinks.

Flex Fan Orgs Online and FlexFans.Org

Now some think what Flex could use is an easy to use more versatile social network platform, with a visible administrator spokesperson who can actually bring out the best, or worst, in Flex enthusiast’s opinions, emotions, etc. in all forms of Web based media. Add to that a spokesperson for the social network willing to add personally created videos and media “out in the field,” not afraid to be visible and accessible, and, at the behest of online Flex Fans, reach out to the manufacturer, automotive dealers, and consumers on Flex issues. So when the person who thinks all of the above is the irrepressible CarsDiva of CarsDiva.com, then well, you can count on one more independent social network being created around the Flex, a network with a uniquely woman’s perspective (from a unique woman)…that network is the brand new Flex Fans enthusiast network, FlexFans.org.

Unlike the few other social media sites that grew up around the Flex, FlexFans.org, “A Place Where Fans of the New Ford Flex can Congregate,” has some unique features both in its technology and in its active administrator, Demetra Markopoulos. In addition to having all of the “state of the art” functions of a true online network (the integrated “wiki” feature seems most useful, for an ongoing easy to read dialogue of Q & A on the product), including personal pages that can hold blogs, photos, video etc., the CarsDiva has done some useful things so far not done on any Flex related site. For instance, as I already mentioned in Flex Part I in this blog, you can find the most comprehensive, up-to-date compendium of all media vehicle reviews on the Flex (in newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc.) on the site at http://www.flexfans.org/Flex-Reviews.library.

Most importantly, FlexFans.org has a visible active spokesman in the CarsDiva, who I might add, being from the retail end of the business, realizes that you can’t fully understand the vehicle or the market unless you get “down and dirty” on the showroom floor, with the Ford dealers that sell the Flex and deal with consumers on a daily basis: before, during, and after their Flex buying experience. To my knowledge the CarsDiva is the only administrator of a social network devoted to the Flex who has already visited a dozen or so varied Ford stores, most during their scheduled Flex Consumer Event introduction parties (the best kept secret parties out there, although I don’t think dealers wanted it to be that much of a secret), to interact with sales associates and managers, Flex prospects and Flex buyers (at some of my Philly favorites, like McCafferty Ford, Springfield Ford and Holman Ford in Mt. Laurel, NJ).

For a vehicle like the Flex, visiting dealers, prospects, customers etc. would seem a “no brainer” right? To fully understand the dynamics of truly polarizing product, you have to get on the showroom floor and get direct source feedback from the people who sell it, and the consumers who look at it and buy it… Simple yes, customary no…it still amazes me how many folks who build and market cars never experience the sales process first hand, that is, how many have never sold on the floor, or visited a dealership for anything other than a handshake and a picture. It always seemed to me that if this “in the trenches” experience was a mandatory step before you became a high powered executive at a car company, you would have a lot less “out of touch” personnel; not to mention an unparalleled credibility with a dealer group who, every day, have to back and sell the product on the front line. Judging from a lot of social media sites and networks, even fewer automotive focused online community spokespeople and administrators have real world showroom floor interaction and experience (most seem to have simply a marketing or technology background and again, have never ever come close to actually selling a car or the true automotive sales process – there is even one very popular automotive site out there that even charges for an instruction package on how to sell cars to females and be female friendly…offered by a Internet technology specialist, no less? It may make great news story headlines, but my bet is it doesn’t sell any more cars…). Alternately, I think FlexFans.org has some real advantages, not the least of which is fact that the CarsDiva is out there in the field.

To sum it up, I expect big things to come from the Flex Crossover - taking a little longer to ignite, like most game changers, it has all the style and utilitarian leadership elements of a runaway “category killer” (you heard it here first, ….well, maybe not). I also could imagine that FlexFans.org can ride the wave of excitement and be the best place where “Flex Fans can Congregate,” the first (but probably not the last) vehicle enthusiast group or site to grow out of CarsDiva.com and be hosted by the CarsDiva.

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