Sheryl Connelly has been reading consumer tea leaves in her role as chief futurist for nearly 20 years for Ford. Lately she’s been joined by Jennifer Brace, global trends and futuring manager, and other members of a growing team that tries to capture the moods and views of people worldwide and translate them into helpful insights for navigating the year ahead — and beyond.
In her role, Connelly has been at the forefront of identifying some of the broad consumer trends that have gone on to reshape business and life over the last several years, including younger generations’ determination to pursue “purpose” in their jobs as well as in their personal lives, consumers’ growing demands that brands “take a stand” on social issues, and a marked increase in mental-health struggles among Americans and other westerners.
Most recently, crunching the thousands of responses in Ford’s global survey of consumers for the company’s 2023 Annual Trends Report, Connelly and her team found an interesting new outcropping of what can only be perceived as the persistence of cancel culture: An amazing 50% of consumers believe brands should hold employees accountable for the things they say and do outside of work! This was the stance of 66% of consumers surveyed in China, where social-credit scores are a weighty influence on behavior, but also of 47% of those surveyed in the United States.
At the same time, the longer she and her futuring team have been around at Ford, the more their surveys, data and related insights are finding their way into benefits for their employer per se. Connelly didn’t tell me this, but it seems perhaps that Ford’s consumer-futuring department has gained influence under the new CEO, Jim Farley.
Not surprisingly, the automaker’s teams in marketing, sales and R&D take advantage of the insights that Connelly, Brace et al. generate from gathering and interpreting the survey data over the course of each year and for their other work in attempting to penetrate the veil of the future.
So it’s no accident that Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand, pioneered an increasing auto-industry emphasis in marketing that depicts the interior of its vehicles as a cocoon where owners could escape from the world. The soothing advertising mantras of long-time Lincoln spokesman Matthew McConaughey helped bring to life some of the notions promoted by Connelly that consumers increasingly have been looking at their automobiles as personal havens from some of the stresses of life.
Survey data dispelled a lingering industry myth that younger generations feel more disconnected from automobiles than their predecessors, Connelly said. “Generation Z is more likely to see a vehicle as an extension of their personal brand, at 62%, compared with boomers, at 43%,” in Ford’s survey for 2023, she said. “People still find joy in their cars. But for young people, they almost enjoy listening to music in their cars more than driving them.”
Similarly, Farley’s recent decision to back away from the company’s earlier commitment to continuing to spend billions of dollars to develop completely autonomous vehicles in part was based on insights generated by Connelly’s research, which suggested that consumers weren’t necessarily expecting or looking for such paradigm-changing technology to rescue them from having to drive vehicles themselves, anytime soon. This conclusion overturned conventional wisdom for the company that first was established in 2016 when then-CEO Mark Fields said to expect Ford to field completely driverless vehicles by 2021.
“Our work is never so clear that we can point to ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ as reasons for certain decisions,” Connelly told me. “But we would like to believe we are part of Ford’s ethos of rigorously questioning our orthodoxies. And we believe this to be the case.”
Still, the role of Ford’s futuring organization can be easily misunderstood, even internally. “Some people think we’ll answer questions about the future,” Connelly said. “What we do instead is force them to debate two sides of an issue. It’s really about testing the resilience of our strategy, looking for pockets of innovation by exploring risks no one else has noticed.”
Brace added, “While we might feel a bit disconnected from the car at times, part of what we do is connect the dots and get [Ford] teams to start thinking about what that means to our business.”