Ford's resident futurist, Sheryl Connelly, in conversation with Interbrand's Shirley Brady
“Ford is more than just a car company—we are also a ‘lifestyle enabler,’ and our work in trends and ‘futuring’ is meant to help our customers achieve just that,” said Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s resident in-house futurist, at the automaker’s 2013 trend forecasting event in New York. Sheryl chatted there with Interbrand editorial director Shirley Brady about being Ford’s first Manager, Global Trends and Futuring.
Shirley Brady: Sheryl, how do you describe to people what you do?
Sheryl Connelly: My experience in having this role for a while now is that people outside the company are surprised it exists. They think that Ford is spending its time thinking, “How do I bend this sheet metal? What do we change in this technology?” So they’re surprised when they find out that we have a process that is much more organic and holistic, that we’re thinking about where society is moving and how can we respond to those needs.
My domain is social, technological, economic, environmental and political, but I’m not the technology expert. If you want to know what’s the cutting edge technology, there are many other subject matter experts within Ford that can better serve that.
I want to understand how society views those things, through the lens of the customer. So for technology, I’m fascinated by the emerging technologies of nanotechnology, biotech, and cognitive science — experts in those fields claim they can change the future of humanity, but I want to understand the ambivalence and the debate that surrounds emerging technology. Think about stem cell research and cloning and the notion “Just because you can, doesn’t actually mean you should.” So where does this debate go, and how do people generally feel about it? So what I do is take a step back from a societal viewpoint and share those insights internally.
SB: With Ford SYNC and MyFordTouch, what are you finding that consumers really want in the car, and how far does all this in-car technology go?
SC: If you were to survey every Millennial that you know and count how many of them wear watches, you’ll find very few do because they have a phone that does that. They embrace multifunction devices, so if they wear a watch that’s a single function device, it’s a waste of their time. In that same spirit, I think the car has to deliver, too. It can’t just deliver one thing. It must be multifunctional and serve many of their needs. That’s why the partnerships and collaborations that we do with companies like Microsoft, Nuance that does our voice activation, or Gracenote, which helps us bring in the images from album covers into the car, help us change that experience so we’re delivering much more.
It goes back to what we’re calling “minimal maximists,” those consumers who say, “My dollar’s got to work really, really hard for me. The products I invest in must deliver on multiple fronts, they must serve a lot of needs.” So that’s where it’s all going.
I have children and they want to turn our car into an entertainment center during the five-minute ride to school. It’s not about being in a car; it’s about what stories, what information, what media can I consumer during this downtime while I’m riding in a vehicle? It’s entertainment, experience and engagement, meaningful engagement, but there are those who don’t want that. There’s a spectrum of demand. There are customers that love the thrill of the drive, the pedal to the metal, the wind in their hair. For them, we have a “do not disturb” button, so they can tune it all out and just focus on what’s important to them.
SB: How does authenticity connect to Ford’s sustainability platform?
SC: Ford has a sustainable business strategy team and they look at things like human rights, water policy, carbon footprint, but it’s not just about miles per gallon, it’s about what role we as a corporation play in the community, about corporate citizenship. And that’s really interwoven deeply into Ford’s history.
If you were to talk to the team and ask them what their charter is, their charter—informally—is for their team to become obsolete, that their mindset, their work, becomes so ingrained throughout the company that it’s not about having a team, it’s just the way you go to market. That’s part of authenticity. Trust is the new black and you have to deliver on your promises, especially because there’s rampant mistrust of brands. Those brands that can credibly stand by their claims, consistently, will be differentiated in the marketplace.
SB: So where does the consumer fit in all this?
SC: The way that we consume, consciously or unconsciously, makes a statement to the world about who we are and what our values are. So if I choose to drink out of a plastic water bottle, knowing all that I know, that says something about me, just as if I choose to drink out of a reusable plastic bottle, a metal bottle, or a glass bottle. In our choices, we are broadcasting our values to the world, even when we don’t intend to.
Once you’re familiar with the exploited diamond mining practices, it taints your feeling about that product unless you can say, “This came from a conflict-free zone; I can feel good about it.” How I spend my money is a statement about what I value, and even though I don’t always do it with purpose or intent, the rest of the world can still see it. The values of corporations, their products and their supply chain need to be transparent because of that heightened awareness.