Henry Ford | Lives Well Lived


Henry Ford came from a farming family to be the most famous man in the world and shape the foundations of 21st Century consumerism.

I like that he is a man that made it big, but base his success in a solid craft – he could take a car apart and put it back together right up to the end. He wasn’t afraid to get his suit dirty, and leveraged his unfounded confidence to great effect. Richard Brandson talks about this in his autobiography, the fact that entrepreneurs need to have the confidence to back themselves to solve problems that no-one else has managed to solve, before they have solved it. It is hence unfounded confidence, which is tricky to manage – often confused or translated into arrogance. I would say there is a fine line, made particularly fine by the British sentiment towards the modest underdog – its much easier to chase dreams in America where unfounded confidence is accepted, even admirable.



Here is an overview of what seems to have been his marketing strategy.

1. He’s the one that said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Not a fan of consumer conversations on twitter then.

2. Race the cars he built and get the land speed record to gain recognition and exposure. (Product demonstration, speed of car vs horse).

3. Sponsor the Indianapolis 500

4. Sell to farmers, so that the product becomes an investment the consumer can make in themselves. In turn, this builds the productivity, lowers food prices and hence increases consumer potential of the US citizen.

5. Be the first to put the steering wheel on the left and make good products that franchises would start up across the country, spreading the brand for you.

‘Fordism’ - mass production of inexpensive goods coupled with high wages for workers and Ford’s global vision of consumerism as the key to peace is interestingly paralleled by the strategy behind Nike+.

In short, Nike+ is about getting people to run more, so they get fitter, enjoy it more – and use up more running shoes.

Both create what Umair Haque calls ‘thick value’ in the New Capitalist Manifesto.

Ford was more influential than any other single person in changing the paradigm of the automobile from a very expensive, heavy, hand-built toy for rich people into a lightweight, reliable, affordable, mass-produced mode of transportation for working-class people.

Similarly Nike appear to be pioneering the move from heavy environmental impact of production chains to lighter, mass-recycled loops with their Considered Design initiative.

                          Henry Ford (standing) in 1902.

He wasn’t a fan of brand conversations, nor personalisation – “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. Still, the Model T was the iPod of 1908.

As for team work and collaboration… In 1918, Henry started another company, Henry Ford and Son, and made a show of taking himself and his best employees to the new company; the goal was to scare the remaining stockholders of the Ford Motor Company to sell their stakes to him before they lost most of their value. The ruse worked, and Henry and Edsel purchased all remaining stock from the other investors, so that they could have complete strategic control.

He also didn’t believe in accountants; he amassed one of the world’s largest fortunes without ever having his company audited.

It looks like either we all exaggerate the importance of the latest marketing wank-speak, like pandering to the infantile demands of consumers on Twitter, or the rules have changed since Ford got away with his antics.

I think the answer is largely the latter.

However, here are some things he said that are still good:

  • Money is like an arm or leg – use it or lose it.
  • Don’t find fault, find a remedy.
  • Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
  • If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.