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Marginal: Pity the Product Planner

If you know one, buy them a cup of coffee—or maybe chamomile tea.

Although there are undoubtedly more thankless jobs in an organization than one might shake a con rod at, I would like to submit that there probably isn’t one that is more sleeplessness-inducing than that of the product planner. This is the person who holds the financial fate of literally thousands of people in her hands. Consider: If said planner makes a case for a particular vehicle, projects the sales and profits, and if these calculations are figured to be mete and the program gets green-lighted, then a veritable cascade of investments follow. This extends from the designers to the manufacturing engineers to the people creating the collateral for the dealerships. If the product makes it, then that’s a big boon—or at least not a negative—for all involved. If the product tanks, well, then there’s everything from (a) designers who really don’t want that vehicle in their portfolio (arguing, perhaps, that someone downstream in the process destroyed the original intent), (b) manufacturing people who are now trying to figure out how to cost-effectively cut production and redeploy assets, to (c) marketing people who are trying to determine what the best means by which those vehicles can be moved out of dealerships without losing one’s proverbial shirt. Yes, product planners have a job that is more thankless than that undertaken by many. There is a certain fickleness to the market that is unpredictable, regardless of what “those in the know” might have us believe.

How random things are became evident when August sales figures were released and AutoPacific announced the results of its Ideal Vehicle Awards. Those awards are based on survey results. AutoPacific sent surveys to owners of new 2007 vehicles (and a few ’06 models) purchased within September through December 2006. Essentially, the survey asked owners about whether they would want to change (or not) 15 specific attributes, such as size, cargo space, seat comfort, power, accessibility, etc. These attributes were given a score on a 100-point scale. There were more than 24,000 respondents to the survey. Here are a slice of the results.

Some people at Ford World Headquarters undoubtedly received the results of this survey with such exuberant glee that those who were driving by the Glass House undoubtedly needed to put on sunglasses due to the glow emanating from the building. Others, those looking at sales results, weren’t always as sunny. So here we’ll look at the winners and how the vehicles are doing in the market, both August ’07 to August ’06 and sales of vehicles for the first eight months of the two years.

• Large Luxury Car: Mercury Grand Marquis. -44.4% month-to-month; -18.1% calendar year to date

• Large Car: Mercury Montego. This is trickier as it has been renamed “Sable.” Sales of the Sable in August ’07 were 1,375 and there were 612 Montegos moved off of dealer lots, for a total of 1,987. That is better than Montego sales for August ’06, 1,728. Combined figures for the year-to-date aren’t as good: a total of 14,814 Sables/Montegos through August ’07 but 16,244 through August ’06.

  • Luxury Mid-Size Car: Lincoln MKZ. Off 0.7% August-to-August; up 4.6% year-to-year.
  • Sporty Car: Ford Mustang. Down 35.8% August-to-August and off 16.3% year-to-year. Is the pony tired?
  • Large Sport Utility: Ford Expedition. A huge surprise: sales August-to-August are up 16.8% and up 21.5% year-to-year.
  • Mid-Size Sport Utility: Ford Explorer. Almost the reverse of its bigger brethren: its month-to-month number is off by 25.8% and down 23.3% for the year.
  • Luxury Crossover SUV: Lincoln MKX. As this is a comparatively new vehicle, there is no comparative data. It was introduced in December ’06, which leads one to go back to the AutoPacific methodology and wonder a bit about the zeal of the respondents and their number.
  • Premium Mid-Size Crossover SUV: Ford Edge. See above.
  • Top Premium/Luxury Brand: Lincoln. Up 16.1% August-to-August and up 12.8% for the year.
  • Top Mainstream Brand: Mercury. Down 20.2% month-to-month and down 11.2% for the year.

So, will the AutoPacific results create a run on Grand Marquises and Mustangs? Will next year’s numbers show that owners of MKXes and Edges, who have had more time with the CUVs, are less enchanted than, say, owners of the vehicles that came in second place in those categories, the Acura MDX and the Nissan Murano? Would you like to be the product planner who has to explain any of this? One thing that certainly gives me pause. According to the Ideal Vehicle Award results, the overall winning vehicle segment is Large Car with a score of 1,257, followed by Luxury Mid-Size Car (1,238), Large Luxury Car (1,235), Mainstream Mid-Size Crossover SUV (1,234), Premium Mid-Size Crossover SUV (1,231), . . . and on to 14th place before there is something small: Image Compact Car at 1,197, two points above the overall industry average. Do you think product planners think Large Car is the ideal segment? 

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