KALAMAZOO — Sheryl Connelly’s primary job with Ford Motor Co. is to predict the future as it relates to the continued good financial health of her employer.
She told an audience of community leaders from the business, education and non-profit sectors gathered Thursday at the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites in downtown Kalamazoo that no one can predict the future.
But they can pay attention to trends and changes in consumer attitudes which will keep their businesses and organizations relevant.
Connelly, whose titled is futurist, was among several speakers at the second annual Catalyst University presented by Southwest Michigan First, Kalamazoo County’s economic development agency.
“In today’s world we all have so much to do and so much responsibility,” Connelly said.
“We become extremely focused and don’t see what’s around us. This is a problem Ford has had” beginning with its founder, Henry Ford.
Ford apparently was so focused on bringing transportation to the masses and producing an automobile to fulfill his goal that he insisted on only using black paint because it dried faster.
“While he was focusing on efficiency, our competitors were focusing on styling and we lost a share of the world market because of that,” she said.
Similar hiccups in the company’s history happened in the 1970’s when the first energy crisis occurred and the bigger, wider, longer vehicles Ford had been producing after World War II to satisfy consumer demand weakened the company’s position in the world market.
“We weren’t paying attention to what was going on around us,” Connelly said, during her talk, “Charting the Course.”
“There were things going on in the world we had no control over,” she said.
This is what Connelly focuses on. She studies consumer and social trends and demographics and spends a lot of time talking to individuals who represent a broad cross-section of what she needs to know to help the leadership at Ford make good decisions.
Connelly’s definition of a trend is a long-term shift in consumer values, attitudes and behaviors. She said the United States’ aging population will have major implications for Ford which will have to consider designing a vehicle for the consumer who has issues such as reduced response time and limited range of motion.
In addition to an aging population, Connelly said she has been paying attention to other areas, such as an attitudinal shifts, which finds consumers feeling extremely vulnerable and seeking out products which will give them greater peace of mind. Many of these products use technology such as GPS, which at one time was only available to the government and businesses.
“Technology is becoming more accessible and you can buy it at your local spy store,” Connelly said.
Many of these same consumers are showing a movement toward ethical consumption, which involves pushing accountability off of the individual and onto the organization.
“There’s a desire from consumers to take back control and the idea that something which happens locally has global implications,” Connelly said. “They want to make sure these larger organizations are doing their part.”
In 2008 colleagues of Connelly’s approached her about the continuation of ethical consumption. Her response was that the era of excess had come to an end and consumers would be balancing practicality with passion, in other words, living within limits.
As a result consumers are seeking out avenues which provide experiences, entertainment and escape.
Connelly said focusing on areas such as the ones she cited where the company has no control makes good business sense.
“It all goes back to strategy,” she said. “It’s understanding who you are, where you want to go and the environment where you want to execute your plan.”