Why Ford Bared Its Fangs at Ferrari Over the F-150 Name

Last Updated Feb 18, 2011 7:23 PM EST

Last week, Ford and Ferrari got into a dustup that on its face was pretty baffling. Ferrari had announced the creation of a new Formula 1 race car called the "F150," to celebrate 150 years of Italian unification. Ford did not share the celebration -- because its bestselling vehicle is the F-150 pickup truck.

The lawyers were duly unleashed and Ferrari agreed to modify the name. One could easily argue that this wasn't Ford finest hour, because what kind of idiot would even briefly consider the possibility that Ferrari was getting into the North American full-size pickup market? But that would be missing the point.

Ford has no choice but to protect the cash cow
As wonderful a job as Ford has done positioning itself as the best American car company for declining federal bailout money in 2009, it still has work ahead. Specifically, it needs to deal with the overhang from the debt it took on before the Detroit meltdown.

Thus far, steadily profitable quarters have enabled the company to pay its debt down. It just converted $3 billion last week. But its crosstown rival, General Motors (GM), has announced that, post-bankruptcy, it plans to eventually operate with no debt. So for Ford to compete, it has to be equally aggressive. And the money will have to come from cash cows like the F-150.

But is this good for Ford in Europe?
Among U.S. car companies, Ford has always enjoyed a good standing in Europe. It's one of the things that's enable it to have more appealing small cars than Chrysler or GM when the U.S. market wants that kind of thing. So you could look at its protectiveness over the F-150 name and ask, "Isn't this going to annoy the Euros, who love their F1 and consider Ferrari a heroic brand?"

Sure, but Ford doesn't care. There are times when you go international -- and times when you focus on the homefront. This was a time for Ford to bring it and bring it hard on the latter, unleashing its pinstriped cowboys to do battle with the Prancing Stallion. Think of it in these terms: You can be the coolest guy in the room, immune to any dig, but when someone insults your mother, you punch him out.

Powerful brands can't afford even a whiff of confusion
This is admittedly an extreme instance of a carmaker smacking down what's essentially a non-competitor (but, interestingly, a ferocious rival from the past -- Ford once tried to buy Ferrari). But it's a small case study in why big, old successful companies take no guff when it comes to their core brands. You can imagine what Apple would do if another tech company began offering products that used the "i" naming convention. Or what Coca-Cola would do if someone developed a healthy fruit drink called "Coca."

Basically, it's the brand, stupid. The F-150 has been the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. for decades. When all else fails, Ford still has the F-150. It cannot be messed with in any way. So let's just hope Ferrari has learned its lesson and doesn't bring out a new racer called the "Mustango" or something.


Photo: Flikr/Gil Abrantes