The Edsel: Celebrating an Analytics Fail

Fifty-six years ago today, nearly a million curious automobile aficionados formed long lines around car dealerships to catch a glimpse of the new Ford Edsel. Even today, the Edsel remains one of the most-hyped American cars ever to roll off an assembly line.

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.

Click the image below for a brief slideshow.

This was the early days of motivational research, and Columbia University's 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?

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Explaining The Past
  • 9/9/2013 10:09:27 AM

It's always fun to examime the past, especially when looking at something as unique as the Edsel, a name that will forever stand for failed projects. If only it were easy to figure why something failed. Even with plenty of data, it's really hard to know exactly why something came out not as planned. It's too easy to say, 'Well, if we had of done X" all would have worked out. But that's the nature of the human mind, to try to correct mistakes so we don't make them again. Doesn't quite work out that well though. We still make mistakes.

Re: Change in perspective
  • 9/9/2013 7:25:09 AM

That's one of the things I'm always looking out for, when do you get to the tipping point where going back is more detrimental than moving forward and accepting that you're going to fall short.  Luckily I'm not doing anything that requires the re-tooling of a manufacturing plant and I can make quick course changes. 

Re: Change in perspective
  • 9/8/2013 9:56:13 PM

@SaneIT, that's an interesting comparison --- the Edsel and Snakes on a Plane. Nice! There's got to be an instance where indications were negative and yet the final result was a huge success.

Re: Change in perspective
  • 9/6/2013 9:09:23 AM

People seem to have a very difficult time stopping any plan once it is set in motion, don't they?

Re: Change in perspective
  • 9/6/2013 7:31:59 AM

Being a car guy I have known the story for a long time but to better understand what happened I often relate it to a more recent overly hyped failure.  If anyone remembers the movies "Snakes On a Plane" they can see how bad research and listening to the wrong people can lead to incredible failures.  The movie was dead from the start it was not going to be made but it became an internet meme and rather than look at what that meant the studio decided to go ahead with the movie.  No one should have been shocked when it bombed all the signs were there they were just ignored.  The same was there with the Edsel.

Re: Simpler times?
  • 9/5/2013 4:19:55 PM

@ Noreen, :), that's interesting to watch.  Especially were the gear shifts were located.  I wonder why that didn't fly?

@ Beth, what makes people cool changes with the time.  It used to an expensive watch or car that got you noticed, now like you said, it is your smart phone.

It also depends wear you live.  In L.A. it might be important what type of car you drive while here in San Francisco, no one really cares.

Re: No wonder it failed
  • 9/5/2013 12:42:30 PM

Looks like a lot of research was done and ultimately the winner was the person who bothered to actually do a in depth analysis of the research data. Thanks for sharing.

Re: Simpler times?
  • 9/5/2013 12:29:59 PM

Re: Change in perspective
  • 9/5/2013 11:27:47 AM

Good point Alexis. We want to feel a manufacturer understands our needs without feeling that we are being told what to want. It's a delecate balance.

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