The venerable automaker reintroduced Taurus to the market in February, slightly more than three months after the last of what was once America's best-selling vehicle rolled off the assembly lines.
But it wasn't as simple as hitting "restart" at its Chicago and Atlanta plants, because the new Taurus wasn't the old Taurus—it was actually an upgraded Ford Five Hundred.
Jonathan Richards, Taurus's marketing manager, says the change was made to bring the well-known and respected brand back to the market.
"The Taurus brand in the Ford stable is [in terms of name recognition] just behind the F-150 and the Mustang, which are vibrant, growing brands in the US," he says. "They do exceptionally well and dominate their segments. In bringing back Taurus, we're bringing back a brand with that type of strength and awareness to the car-buying public."
Richards says the new Taurus—the 2008 model will hit dealership lots this fall—delivers on all the tenets that are core to the Taurus brand—safety, value, performance, fuel economy, and comfort.
"It's like painting a bull's-eye on the Taurus brand. We can introduce this new product that delivers on all of this in a relevant way," he says.
It also features some significant upgrades, including a new powertrain with 60 additional horsepower, a new all-wheel drive system, and standard electronic stability control.
Richards says retiring the old Taurus family sedan gave Ford the opportunity to reinvent it.
"The Five Hundred, while a wonderful product and a very good brand, never achieved the awareness that was necessary for the brand to do very well in the marketplace," he says. "Where the Taurus excels is in brand recognition. That's something most marketers covet. It is such a valued commodity. Awareness is absolutely critical," he says.
Richards calls Taurus's current situation "a perfect storm" as it's the right brand with the right product that will soon be accompanied by the right marketing campaign.
"Our goal is to completely reinvent [the Taurus] and make it more relevant from a marketing standpoint," he notes. "It wasn't the ultimate equation [before, with the Five Hundred]. When you get into a situation, you look at the alternatives. This one is the perfect jigsaw puzzle of product and brand."
"When we ask consumers what they think of when they think of Ford, they say the F-150, Mustang, and Taurus. What they have in their heads is the old Taurus—we want them to have the new Taurus."
Derrick Coupland, a partner at Blacksheep Strategy, a Winnipeg, Canada-based branding strategy company, says it's possible owners of the old Taurus, who have aged and quite possibly moved up in income brackets since their original purchase, will be attracted to the new, higher-priced version.
But he thinks many customers will be confused by the changes and will have difficulty learning the new nameplates quickly.
He says from a branding standpoint, he would have recommended Ford rename its Fusion product Taurus because that car competes in the same segment as the old Taurus against the likes of the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry.
"Now the Five Hundred is carrying the Taurus nameplate and competing in an upscale market," he says. "[The car] is bigger [and] more expensive, and competes with a different set of cars. The marketplace has to relearn that."
"There will be Five Hundreds and Tauruses driving around at the same time that are effectively the same car. It's confusing."
Richards says Taurus, which was first produced for the 1986 model year, had a five-year run in the early to mid-1990s of being the best-selling vehicle in the US. Of the approximately 7.5 million of them produced over the following two-plus decades, nearly half (3.5 million) are still on the road today.
Ford wasn't finished with Taurus name changes in February. The company also introduced Taurus X, a crossover vehicle combining features of both a car and an SUV, which was previously known as the Ford Freestyle.
Coupland claims this change only adds to the confusion in the marketplace.
"There was no previous Taurus SUV," he says. "It's another thing the market has to learn."
Coupland notes while Ford has been busy changing nameplates, Toyota and Honda have continued to make incremental improvements to the Camry and Accord vehicles. That means the marketplace knows what each car is year after year. Ford, meanwhile, cycles through nameplates so quickly it doesn't have time to benefit from the brand equity that is being built up.
"Ford introduces a new product brand the marketplace has to learn fresh rather than incrementally improving the brand," he says. "Given the alternatives Honda and Toyota have in the market, it's so easy to see what they're offering.
"It creates a competitive disadvantage for Ford."