Interviewing Sheryl Connelly, Ford's Female Futurist
"Looking Further With Ford" is the automaker's yearly trends conference, which explores global micro-trends. The theme for 2015 is "Make way for Gen Z."
Sheryl Connelly, global consumer trends and futuring for Ford Motor Company, addresses changes across the globe and demographics with issues that confront everyone, from Gen Y (millennial), Gen X, and Baby Boomers, to the new Gen Z.
Connelly notes "New forms of mobility and collaborative platforms are emerging every day. At Ford, we are always mindful of the blueprint for sustainability, and the need to push the change as much as to adapt to it. You'll see that in the products that Ford introduces."
According to Connelly, "anticipating shifts in society is an inherent part of product development; so from that standpoint our consumer insight and trend work dates back to the days of Henry Ford. Over one hundred years later, designers, engineers, and marketers within Ford still spend much of their time contemplating how they can better serve customers of the future."
I have known Sheryl over the years and consider her a major force in the automotive industry. She is sharp, energetic, fashion forward, fun, and open minded. Sheryl is a motivator for change. I recently conducted the following interview.
Holly Reich: How do you source your micro-trends? Do you travel around the world, use the Internet for ideas, or source through Pinterest, Houzz, etc.?
Sheryl Connelly: Although the micro-trend book is published on an annual basis, each edition is built on over a decade of Ford's trend research, which focuses on consumer values, attitudes, and behaviors. As we develop new trends, we draw upon this historical foundation, and then vet the concepts with thought leaders, academics, and subject-matter experts from around the world.
We also have a great partner in Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), who, among other things brings quantitative research to the trend book. As much as I love perusing Pinterest and Houzz, they play no role in our trend work because neither resource focuses on consumer values, per se.
HR: Was this division created by and for you? Can you give me a short background how your position came about?
SC: Understanding people and anticipating shifts in society is an inherent part of product development; so from that standpoint our consumer insight and trend work dates back to the days of Henry Ford. Over one hundred years later, designers, engineers, and marketers within Ford still spend much of their time contemplating how they can better serve customers of the future.
The trends team was "centralized" in the early 2000's to support this ongoing effort. I joined the team in 2004. Prior to that time, I had worked in various field positions for Ford Division Sales.
HR: I am so interested in Gen Z. May I conclude that Gen Z is the next group that Ford is putting into their efforts?
SC: There are many reasons Ford is paying attention to Generation Z; not the least of which is their sheer size. If you count Generation Z as anyone 21 and younger, then it comprises two billion of the world's seven billion population. Equally important is the influence they will have in terms of creating the future for other generations. Early indicators suggest that they want many mobility options, and Ford wants to be the company that services those needs. Even as we focus on the emerging needs of the youngest generation, we cannot lose sight of the equally important older generations. Ultimately, our goal is to build products that best serve our target customers, irrespective of age.
HR: You have some compelling statistics in the book. How did you trace Gen Z? Anything else about Gen Z that I should know? You mentioned that your daughters (ages 11 and 13) were part of your research.
SC: We collaborated with BAV on the quantitative elements of the trend book. Their research data came from respondents that were both over and under 35 years of age -- so the numbers are not always specific to Generation Z.
Tapping into the range of attitudes for people under 21 was done, in part, through desktop research and anecdotal observations. While my kids' sentiments are not anywhere in the book, they were without a doubt, my earliest inspiration.
HR: Ford must see merit in tracing trends. Do they see it in sales or is it just a way of staying relevant?
SC: As you might imagine designing, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, and selling a car is a lengthy, collaborative, and complex process. Hundreds, if not thousands of Ford employees, are involved in bringing a vehicle to market. It is impossible to attribute a trend insight to a particular product or sales result. While I am proud to play a role, consumer trends, and future ideas is one small ingredient in the sausage-making process.
HR: On a more personal note, I love your style. I'd like to give readers a more intimate portrait of you: What designers do you wear? What types of clothes, fabrics, shapes, and shoes do you favor?
SC: So sweet. I am flattered by the question. I am not particularly loyal to any one brand. What speaks to me the loudest is the great deal (i.e., Outlet Shopping). When I do shop, I am drawn to designs that are simple, structured, and a little edgy. The Holy Grail of Shopping for me is a super pointy toe pump with a modest heel. If you know where to find one, please let me know.
HR: Did you design your hair cut? It's fab!
SC: My hair is cut to resemble a Hollywood actress who shall remain nameless. But I will offer you one hint: She used to be a regular on Melrose Place.
HR: How does your sense of design and trending carry over into your personal space?
SC: I cover my office walls with things that hold special meaning to me -- family photos, souvenirs from trips, letters, and craft projects made by my daughters. My home, however, is in a never-ending state of home improvement. We have lived there for over ten years, and I feel like I am still trying to make it my own.
HR: So, what's on your night table?
SC: Tablet, phone charger, and TV remote.
HR: What do you do to unwind?
SC: Watching television -- I am a closet reality TV junkie. I also like reading a good book and lounging in the backyard hammock with my hubby.
by Holly Reich for Motor Matters
HOLLY REICH has been writing about automotive and travel since 1982. She has reported on the automotive industry for television and radio broadcast stations including; Fox News, SPEED, Car TV and Autolab. Reich has contributed to publications such as RIDES, Edmunds.com, kbb.com, Elite Traveler, automotiverhythms.com, The New York Daily News and The Washington Post. Holly is based in New York City.