It was, strangely, also one of the most researched. Ford invested heavily in select market research to design the car. But it didn't listen to the voices of its customers -- and, as a result, launched a car that failed to fit current market conditions and fell short of the hype and expectations the company created with its overly elaborate marketing plan.
The Edsel proved the old adage that it's better to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than over-promise and leave people wondering why a company was making such a big deal about nothing. From that standpoint, the Edsel is one of the most interesting analytics fails in history -- and worth taking another look at today from the comfortable position of hindsight.
The concept for what later became the Edsel dates all the way back to 1948, nine years before the car's actual launch. Ford's goal was to make a mid-priced car to compete with Pontiacs and Buicks.
Bureau of Applied Social Research was at the forefront of this new discipline. According to an interesting article from True's Automobile Yearbook, 1958 issue, Ford paid the bureau $50,000 (equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today) to interview about 1,600 car owners to determine "social stereotypes of automobile makes." The interviews focused on two cities: Peoria, Ill., and San Bernadino, Calif.
Columbia grad students conducted the interviews, which each lasted about an hour. And then the results were analyzed and delivered to Ford executives through Dave Wallace, then market research chief for the Edsel division.
Car-buying habits were just part of the research. Next, came the name. During its development the vehicle was dubbed the "E Car," with the "E" standing for "experimental." But everyone at Ford knew it needed a more compelling moniker to drive sales.
The task was given to an advertising agency, Foote, Cone and Belding, which ran a contest among employees to name and win one of the new cars. The agency pared down 18,000 entries to a mere 6,000 and presented them to Ford execs, who were not impressed.
So they reached out to modernist poet Marianne Moore (who later wrote the liner notes for Muhammad Ali's spoken-word album). What did she come up with? Symmechromatic. The Intelligent Whale. Mongoose Civique. The Ford Silver Sword. You can read the full list here.
With plenty of data, but no process for transforming it to useful business intelligence, Ernest Breech, then Ford's chairman of the board, settled the matter with intuition. He named it "Edsel" after Henry Ford's late son, who had served as president of The Ford Motor Co. until 1943.
Time proved that no one liked the name -- not the public, and not even the Ford family, who viewed naming a car after a family member as crass and commercial.
By any name, the Edsel was a marketing extravaganza extraordinaire. To generate interest, dealers were ordered to keep the new cars covered until E Day: September 4, 1957. Combined with plenty of advertising, television specials, and a variety of contests and drawings, Ford worked the public into a fever pitch.
When they finally saw the car, they were left scratching their heads. As Time magazine noted in a story on The 50 Worst Cars of All Time, "Ford's marketing mavens had led the public to expect some plutonium-powered, pancake-making wondercar; what they got was a Mercury."
The Edsel wasn't a bad car, even if it was an unattractive and over-priced. So what if the front grill seemed like it was sucking a lemon? And, yes, the doors tended to stick and the oil pan was prone to fall off.
But it turned into an industry joke, largely because the manufacturer misused the data it obtained (the name, for instance), failed to research what it should have (what did buyers really want in a new car?), took too long to get from design to assembly line (nine years), didn't consider evolving expectations (buyers wanted smaller cars), and let Madison Avenue drive expectations too high to be sustainable.
The Edsel survived three model years before Ford put it out of its misery. The company lost $350 million on the car -- about $2.7 billion in today's dollars.
Some people, including Motor Trend's Angus MacKenzie, argue that "market research has never created a great car." MacKenzie claims great cars are the product of passion.
Is he right? Or is the Edsel story less about the failures of market research -- and more about the failures of the corporate executives to analyze, interpret, and use the data to drive business decisions?