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Ford chases ‘Breaking Bad’ swagger with Bryan Cranston ads

Actor Bryan Cranston attends the 2018 Performer Peer Group Celebration at NeueHouse Hollywood on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)
Actor Bryan Cranston attends the 2018 Performer Peer Group Celebration at NeueHouse Hollywood on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)
Bloomberg News

There’s a new face of Ford Motor Co.

The automaker struggling with fading fortunes and a sinking stock is seeking to get its swagger back with a series of ads debuting this weekend featuring Bryan Cranston, the star of the award-winning series “Breaking Bad,” and his wry, no-nonsense demeanor.

Using the slogan “Built Ford Proud,” the commercials push back on the popular notion that Silicon Valley is on the verge of delivering driverless and flying cars. A commercial for the Escape sport utility vehicle takes a not-so-subtle shot at Tesla. While the compact crossover has never been shot into space, as Elon Musk’s Roadster was earlier this year, it “proudly sits in over 2 million garages,” Cranston says in a craggy baritone.

Another spot mocks tech gurus’ penchant for pontificating about the future, while Ford has been building vehicles for 115 years. “Let the other guys keep dreaming about the future,” Cranston says, driving through the desert in a pickup with the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” playing the background. “We’ll be the ones building it.”

Ford has failed to keep today’s models fresh and floundered in its attempts to get Wall Street interested in its plans to shape the future of transportation. Morgan Stanley downgraded the shares Friday to the equivalent of a hold, expressing skepticism about its turnaround strategy.

After profit fell by more than half in the second quarter, Chief Executive Officer Jim Hackett announced an $11 billion restructuring that will take as long as five years. Moody’s Investors Service has cut the carmaker’s credit rating to one level above junk. Its stock trades at the lowest since November 2009.

“The market needs more evidence of success before embracing the Ford restructuring story,” Morgan Stanley’s analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a note to investors, which also criticized the automaker for not providing details of its revival plan. “We had hopes that Ford management would move the other way with transparency and increase engagement with investors on long-term strategy.”

Ford fell as much as 3.8 percent Friday and was down 0.9 percent to $8.43 as of at 10:27 a.m. in New York trading. The shares have been trading at their lowest since November 2009.

The ads by Ford and Wieden + Kennedy – the agency behind Nike’s Colin Kaepernick commercial – will reach 90 percent of American adults, according to the automaker. They’re aimed at changing the negative narrative with plenty of attitude and punch lines, including one of Hackett’s favorite bromides: “It’s better to be right than first.”

Whereas fans of the AMC series “Breaking Bad” might see Walter White, the meth-dealing high school chemistry teacher who drove a beat-up Pontiac Aztek and ominously warned “I’m the one who knocks,” Ford sees Cranston, 62, as an authentic voice who can change minds about where the company is heading.

“He has a kind of swagger to get down to the essence of things, and we think that’s really important nowadays,” Jim Farley, president of global markets, told reporters this week in Las Vegas, where the ads were first shown to Ford’s dealers. “He just captures that no-baloney, real honesty that frankly we don’t hear much of any more.”

One of the ads mocks Silicon Valley’s attempts to create flying cars by showing a racing Mustang muscle car going airborne over a hill. Cranston dryly intones: “Contrary to what you’re about to see, the Ford Motor Company does not condone, nor build, flying cars.”

“We’re honest about the cultural context we’re operating in,” said Matt VanDyke, Ford’s director of U.S. marketing. “There’s all this talk, and we’ve got a 115-year heritage of doing and building and backing it up by making a car every 5.4 seconds. We’re ready to speak with an attitude of pride and confidence.”

Ford is lagging behind Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors in putting driverless cars on the road. Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car project, plans to deploy robo-taxis in Phoenix this year, while GM intends to begin a similar service in the U.S. next year. Ford has said it’ll have a money-making business involving robot rides ready for 2021.

While the ads nod to Ford’s ambition to field driverless cars and tackle urban congestion, they mostly focus on new models arriving next year: a rugged Ranger pickup and redesigned versions of its two top-selling SUVs, the Escape and Explorer. Seventy-five percent of its models will be new by 2020.

The ads are aimed at keeping Ford’s millions of long-time customers in the fold. As the automaker has struggled and its lineup has aged, customer loyalty began to slip, Farley said.

“When you have a moment like we’ve had as a company, you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘What can we change to make it better?’ And it was a long list,” Farley said. “It all added up to the same thing: We’ve got to get serious about loyalty. The biggest ah-ha moment was when we saw our lead shrinking” in customer loyalty.

Even before the new products arrive, Ford is finding ways to squeeze more profit out of its existing lineup by focusing on each model as its own business, Farley said. Moves like better allocating vehicles to geographic areas that’ll yield the biggest bucks will start making a difference to earnings in the coming quarters, he predicted.

“Ford just seems to be at its best when it can make a comeback,” Farley said. “This week is the first step.”

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