Auto Industry, Meet Twitter: Ford Re-Launches Fiesta

11/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Like many Chicago residents, I grew up somewhere else. After graduating from college in the early 1980s, I was unable to find meaningful work in my hometown of Detroit. Frustrated, I crammed my clothes, record albums and a howling cat into my Ford Fiesta and split for Chicago. Years later, I'm fully assimilated, save one thing. I've never shaken my insane love for cars -- a telltale vestige of my Motor City roots.

I took notice when I saw that Ford is re-launching the Fiesta. Sporty and fuel efficient, it's a ray of hope. Ford Motor is bringing back the snappy compact to generate excitement and drive sales among the Millennials -- children of Boomers. Little did I know the Fiesta re-launch would reveal an important lesson for traditional businesses struggling to stay relevant in a digital world. Namely, that for people working in deep-decline sectors such as auto manufacturing, success means not only innovating, but changing the culture of your industry while you're at it.

It's Sam De La Garza's job to re-launch the Fiesta. In a post-advertising age, and in an industry driven by assembly-line thinking, De La Garza is a revolutionary who is re-writing the rule book for how to market a vehicle. Consider that two years before the Fiesta is even scheduled to appear in show rooms, De La Garza is actively building a community of Fiesta fans online. As he does so, he brings his colleagues along for the ride.

Concocting the right way to reach Millennials is a dizzying mix of Facebook apps, blog posts and live events. Often called the "Ray Romano" of the automotive business, Sam De La Garza good-naturedly Twitters his way across the unforgiving tightropes of social media networks. Bit by bit, he's building a base of believers.

As part of his online strategy, De La Garza held a contest to give away Fiestas to bloggers for noteworthy excursions, such as retracing Paul Revere's Midnight Ride or Route 66 coast-to-coast, in exchange for posting about their adventures. Over 4,000 bloggers competed for a coveted 100 vehicles. Leading up to the announcement of winners, each entrant blogged or tweeted about their application process. The echo effect of the blogosphere amplified the message: through August, Fiesta had generated more than 3.7 million YouTube views, more than 460,000 Flickr views and more than 2.8 million Twitter impressions. These are impressive numbers for anyone who pioneers social media, where relationships are built one at a time.

Sam De La Garza believes that new ways of marketing cars using social media will help his industry transform. In the nuts-and-bolts world of car manufacturing, his perspective on change is prosaic: "We need to open our lives to this new way of sharing with the customer. This is not easy for Ford." Referring to the freewheeling way that social media allows for unfiltered customer input, he's philosophical: "Our brands are precious to us. But we must learn to let go if we expect to grab on to this new customer group."

Such a personal and passionate commitment to a product is more commonly associated with entrepreneurs, rather than a brand manager from traditional corporate culture. It's too early to tell if Sam De La Garza's approach sells more vehicles. But exercising the bravery to blaze new trails is attractive, especially to the Millennials he's targeting. When my 20-something assistant finished proofing this post she walked into my office and joked, "I want to go work for Sam De La Garza." See, courage is contagious.