How one executive’s crappy day doomed the branding of the Ford Edsel

Feb 19, 2018

It’s an all-too-common experience in business for a team to work really hard on a plan, only to have a senior leader ignore it all and instead make their decision based on a knee-jerk opinion.

It’s not just frustrating for the employees who wasted all that time and effort. It’s also just bad business, because that sort of dismissive decision-making can sabotage an entire project.

One particularly infamous example is the Ford Edsel. It was supposed to be Ford’s big splash into mid-market vehicles during the 1950s, and the company spent several years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing it.

To name it, they hired multiple research firms, had their advertising agency hold a company-wide naming contest, and even consulted with a renowned poet. They eventually boiled down a list of 20,000 potential names to 10.

When it came time to present the finalists to the the Ford executive committee, the chairman of the board was in a bad mood.

“I don’t like any of them,” he said bluntly.

So, they went back to the list of names that had been previously ruled out, reading through it until they reached “Edsel,” the name of Henry Ford’s son.

“Let’s call it that,” the chairman abruptly declared.

The product team was appalled. Edsel was a “disastrously unfortunate combination of syllables,” John Brooks wrote in his famous New Yorker essay, “The Fate of the Edsel.”

The public apparently agreed. Ford sold a comically tiny fraction of its goal, and many people partly blamed the epic failure on terrible branding.

Long story short: don’t be that type of decision-maker. It’s tempting to impose your personal opinion when you’re the highest-paid person in the room, but it’s smarter to fully consider and trust the perspectives of others when making a major decision.

This article also appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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