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Sheryl Connelly

Ford's In-House Futurist
Sheryl Connelly in conversation with
Shirley Brady

April 24, 2013

Sheryl Connelly is paid to understand and predict consumers' needs, but she doesn't own a crystal ball. As manager of Ford Global Trends and Futuring, she tracks consumer trends, demographic shifts and buyer behavior, and works with Ford Motor Company's global network to see how that information, data and analysis can inform future product development.

An attorney by trade, she joined Ford in 1996, rising through the marketing and sales division before being named the company's first in-house futurist eight years ago. In her quest to help Ford better understand how customers' lives are evolving and what they're looking for when they buy a car, she even spent some time working on the sales lot at a Ford dealership.


She didn't start her career expecting to be a futurist. Connelly has her Juris Doctorate and Master in Business Administration degrees from the University of Detroit and a Bachelors degree in Finance from Michigan State University.

She has spoken at TED, SXSW and a host of industry events including Ford's 2013 consumer outlook event in New York, where she spoke with brandchannel Editor-in-Chief Shirley Brady.

Shirley Brady: Sheryl, how do you describe to people what you do?

Sheryl Connelly: My experience in having this role for a while now is that people outside the company are surprised it exists. They think that Ford is spending its time thinking, “How do I bend this sheet metal? What do we change in this technology?” So they’re surprised when they find out that we have a process that is much more organic and holistic, that we’re thinking about where society is moving and how can we respond to those needs.

My domain is social, technological, economic, environmental and political, but I’m not the technology expert. If you want to know what’s the cutting edge technology, there are many other subject matter experts within Ford that can better serve that.

I want to understand how society views those things, through the lens of the customer. So for technology, I’m fascinated by the emerging technologies of nanotechnology, biotech, and cognitive science — experts in those fields claim they can change the future of humanity, but I want to understand the ambivalence and the debate that surrounds emerging technology. Think about stem cell research and cloning and the notion “Just because you can, doesn’t actually mean you should.” So where does this debate go, and how do people generally feel about it? So what I do is take a step back from a societal viewpoint and share those insights internally.

SB: With Ford SYNC and MyFordTouch, what are you finding that consumers really want in the car, and how far does all this in-car technology go?

SC: If you were to survey every Millennial that you know and count how many of them wear watches, you’ll find very few do because they have a phone that does that. They embrace multifunction devices, so if they wear a watch that’s a single function device, it’s a waste of their time. In that same spirit, I think the car has to deliver, too. It can’t just deliver one thing. It must be multifunctional and serve many of their needs. That’s why the partnerships and collaborations that we do with companies like Microsoft, Nuance that does our voice activation, or Gracenote, which helps us bring in the images from album covers into the car, help us change that experience so we’re delivering much more.

It goes back to what we’re calling “minimal maximists,” those consumers who say, “My dollar’s got to work really, really hard for me. The products I invest in must deliver on multiple fronts, they must serve a lot of needs.” So that’s where it’s all going.

I have children and they want to turn our car into an entertainment center during the five-minute ride to school. It’s not about being in a car; it’s about what stories, what information, what media can I consumer during this downtime while I’m riding in a vehicle? It’s entertainment, experience and engagement, meaningful engagement, but there are those who don’t want that. There’s a spectrum of demand. There are customers that love the thrill of the drive, the pedal to the metal, the wind in their hair. For them, we have a “do not disturb” button, so they can tune it all out and just focus on what’s important to them.

SB: How does authenticity connect to Ford’s sustainability platform?

SC: Ford has a sustainable business strategy team and they look at things like human rights, water policy, carbon footprint, but it’s not just about miles per gallon, it’s about what role we as a corporation play in the community, about corporate citizenship. And that’s really interwoven deeply into Ford’s history.

If you were to talk to the team and ask them what their charter is, their charter—informally—is for their team to become obsolete, that their mindset, their work, becomes so ingrained throughout the company that it’s not about having a team, it’s just the way you go to market. That’s part of authenticity. Trust is the new black and you have to deliver on your promises, especially because there’s rampant mistrust of brands. Those brands that can credibly stand by their claims, consistently, will be differentiated in the marketplace.

This article also appears in Interbrand's IQ journal


Shirley Brady is Editor-in-Chief of brandchannel and Interbrand's Editorial Director.

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Ford's In-House Futurist - Sheryl Connelly in conversation with
Shirley Brady

 Sheryl is also a great artist and visual note-taker; don't miss her TED notes! 
Otto Enthusiast - April 24, 2013
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