In November 2019, Ford unveiled its first ground-up all-electric vehicle, a much anticipated entry to the electric vehicle (EV) market. In what has been seen as a controversial move, Ford decided to call it a Mustang. To find out how the public took to this naming convention, you need only google “Ford Mustang Mach-E,” pull up any article or video, and then scroll down to the comments section. There you will find resounding cries from Mustang fans and general automobile enthusiasts alike, stating that Ford has committed semantic automotive blasphemy and heresy for putting the Mustang badge on anything other than a roaring, high-octane fueled, two-door sports coupe.
The public reaction to this choice has been strong. Really strong. It’s actually quite astounding how strong the reactions have been. Even I, born and raised in the Detroit auto culture, fully aware of the weight and gravitas that is put behind legacy nameplates, was surprised by the level of resistance I saw online.
For many lovers of “American Muscle,” names like Corvette, Challenger, and Mustang are sacred. Each represents their own unique expression of power, performance, and passion. Automakers give remarkable consideration whenever they are designing cars that bear these monikers to make sure that they are both honoring their legacy and evolving it. At times, this can be a very thin line to walk. It appears that many folks out there feel Ford has crossed that line by deciding to give their new all-electric crossover the sacred pony car badge.
I understand what Ford was thinking from a branding standpoint — jumpstart the company’s foray into electric vehicles by associating them with Ford’s strongest legacy names. The idea is that the gravitas of these names may snag brand loyalists, while also outwardly communicating confidence in and commitment to the EVs Ford is bringing to market.
It’s a bold and risky move. This is a bit surprising, given that “bold” and “risky” are usually not words associated with a traditional OEM’s modus operandi. Regardless of what any of them might claim, the approach that traditional automakers take with product development is mostly calculated, measured, and safe. Demographic studies and focus groups rule the day, and are the gospel of a systemic doctrine put in place to mitigate risk.
In many ways, the development of the Mustang Mach-E went along with the dictates of that time-honored OEM playbook. Ford prudently chose to make its EV a midsized crossover, which is arguably the most popular segment in the global auto market. Ford benchmarked and took cues from an industry-leading competitor (Tesla) in an effort to compete and stay relevant. It conducted demographic studies, and consumer focus groups to inform the ergonomic layout of the interior and format of the touchscreen user interface. All these steps were very prudent, measured, and done to inform Ford of what its consumers wanted and what they deemed important.
But when it came to dubbing its new electric SUV a Mustang, one would think that Ford didn’t listen to their customers at all, but rather said: “Hey team, here’s a wacky idea; let’s call our all-electric midsize crossover… a Mustang! Our fanbase will just love that. We have absolutely no market data to support this, but it just feels right. What could possibly go wrong?!”
A few individuals on Ford’s management team have spoken openly on how they were initially skeptical about the idea of attaching the name Mustang to their new EV, but that they warmed up to the idea more and more as the vehicle came to fruition. From listening to a number of these interviews with the Ford development team about what led to them to go with that name, I get the sense that they totally overthought this internally, letting brand dogma fuel the outcome of a very simple solution.
Alas, they are calling it a Mustang. There are many people begging Ford to remove Mustang from the EV’s name and simply call it the Mach-E. One commenter went as far as to say that he was originally planning on getting the car, until he heard that Ford was calling it a Mustang, so now he is not getting it out of protest and principle. Whether Ford will actually acquiesce to these pleas to rename the Mustang Mach-E remains to be seen. This is unlikely, given that Ford has probably already put in the order with some supplier to pound out the ~50,000 sets of little horsey badges that will adorn the car for its projected annual production rate.
People can get worked up about the names of things. For example, back before pro sports stadiums were named after the corporate entity that sponsored them, there was this outdoor concert venue by my childhood home in Michigan called the “Pine Knob Music Hall.” Then a corporate sponsor took it over and changed its name to the “DTE Energy Music Theatre.” Many locals were outraged by the perceived corporate takeover of their beloved music venue, vowing that they would always still call it “Pine Knob;” some going as far as to vow that they’d never see another show there again. To this day many people still refer to it as “Pine Knob,” including me. (In fact I had forgotten what the “new” name of the venue was and had to google it just now.)
Meanwhile, the names of the vehicles in Tesla’s product line are completely predicated on a sophomoric inside joke by Elon Musk, spelling out “S3XY.” Coincidentally, Tesla had originally planned to call the Model 3 the Model E, but didn’t do so after Ford threatened to sue Tesla over it. This led to Elon Musk famously exclaiming that Ford was “killing SEX.”
History has shown that consumers can indeed come around after initially being put off by a product’s name. Remember all the hullabaloo over Apple’s decision to call its tablet the “iPad?” People flipped out at first, and then gradually they accepted it. Now everybody and their mother has an iPad. Hopefully the same will be true for the Mustang Mach-E.
Who knows — all this uproar may end up being a brilliant PR move by Ford, but just not quite in the way it intended. Consider what happened with the Tesla Cybertruck. The Cybertruck’s unveiling set the internet ablaze with polarized opinions about its provocative appearance and jabs about the Tesla “Armor Glass” demonstration snafu. Love it or hate it, one thing was certain — everyone was talking about it. This proved to be invaluable exposure for Tesla. A tsunami of social media posts, articles, and videos flooded the internet as everyone clamored to give their opinion and analysis. This resulted in bazillions of dollars in free guerrilla marketing for Tesla. Any other auto manufacturer would die to have one of their products get even a quarter of that much free exposure.
As Oscar Wilde said: “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about … not being talked about.”
Oh, and people were talking alright, and a lot of it wasn’t flattering. Pretty much everybody was jarred when first laying eyes on the Cybertruck. Even the most devout Tesla fanboys openly admitted that initially they flat out DID NOT like it. Some were even convinced at first that it was part of a very elaborate practical joke that Elon Musk was pulling on everyone. But it was not a joke — that was it; and the world was left to stew on what they saw. Then a funny thing started to happen. After sleeping on it a bit, the angular truck’s appearance started growing on people. Rejection turned into acceptance, and then, for many, desire. People went from one extreme to the other, from “No way I’d ever order a Cybertruck” to “I just ordered a Cybertruck!” Perhaps a similar phenomenon will play out for the Mustang Mach-E.
We are creatures of habit and we set expectations for the future based on what we know of the past. When Tesla unveiled its pickup truck, many people reviled it because it was not what they knew a pickup truck to be. Similarly, when Ford announced that its all-electric crossover would be called a Mustang, many people reviled it because it was not what they knew a Mustang to be.
Ironically, this disdain from the “It’s not a Mustang” camp may actually play into Ford’s favor. All this debate and skepticism has put the Mustang Mach-E in the forefront of the consciousness of those participating in the debate. This means it has mindshare, and mindshare can be extremely valuable. The very people protesting the name might have just shown indifference towards Ford’s new electric crossover if it wasn’t for its provocative name. These people are now thinking about this electric car and are provoked by it. This psychological provocation could motivate many of these skeptics to visit their local Ford dealers to see for themselves what this so-called “Mustang” is all about. In turn, they’ll find themselves doing something that they probably never thought they’d ever do — test drive an electric car. The prospect of this excites me to no end. I’ll tell you why.
During my seven years at Tesla, I had the pleasure of sitting in the passenger seat and witnessing literally thousands of people experience the glory of electric motoring for the first time. It is indeed a glorious thing to behold. It is an epiphany moment that astonishes people to their core, makes them rethink what they thought was possible, and turns even the most ardent skeptics into devout loyalists. It didn’t matter if they had decades of loyalty to another car make/model. It didn’t matter whether the car they arrived in was a $50,000 American muscle car or a $500,000 Italian hypercar. Once they stomped that accelerator pedal and experienced everything that a properly designed EV can do, they were hooked. They then respected the EV, desired the EV, and more times than not, bought the EV. I keep in touch with a number of the Tesla owners whose test drives I’ve co-piloted. The resounding sentiment is that this electric car is their favorite car they’ve ever owned.
With the Mustang Mach-E, Ford now has the opportunity to do the same thing — introduce legions of uninitiated car buyers to a truth that Tesla drivers have known for a decade — a properly designed EV is an evolutionary leap in motoring. EVs are here, and they are awesome.
Those who subscribe to the “It’s not a Mustang” camp, I implore you to test drive the Mustang Mach-E as soon as you can. When you experience the thrilling instant acceleration that its electric motors provide, and the superb handling that comes from having the entire powertrain at axle level, you may not even remember your own name, let alone the name of the car you’re in. You will experience power, performance, and, yes — passion. When your test drive comes to an end, and your mind has a chance to process what you just experienced, maybe, just maybe, you’ll be convinced that, yes, it is a Mustang.
Was this all part of Ford’s plan all along; a masterstroke marketing move to use reverse-psychology provocation to lure skeptical “petrolheads” behind the wheel of their first serious EV in an effort to convert them into advocates of the company’s transition to electrification? That would be epic.
This whole naming drama has kind of become its own thing, and I hope it proves to be worthwhile for Ford. As far as I’m concerned, the Ford team can call it whatever they want. They could have called it the Ford “ham and cheese sandwich” for all I care. Just as long as they made it a great car. To quote Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Ford’s first ground-up EV is indeed shaping up to be something sweet, and I’m thrilled that people will be able to stop by their local Ford dealer and smell these new electric roses. It will be love at first throttle, and hopefully the start of a new chapter in a broader consumer relationship with electric cars. Viva la rEVolution!