At Ford, bragging about quality is Job 1

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

(Fortune) -- Ford plans to launch a marketing campaign this summer to brag about how the Ford brand has risen in the minds of consumers.

To back up its claim, it cites a new study by Automotive Lease Guide, which measures the perception of quality in car brands as a way of determining resale value.

Ford (F, Fortune 500) brand cars rose eight percentage points, the largest increase of any mainstream brand, and it hastily arranged a conference call with reporters to capitalize on its success.

Declared Ford marketing boss Jim Farley: "The perception of our quality and the perception of our company have huge impacts on our customer."

All well and good. But looking at the ALG data in its entirety, you get a different picture.

Even with its big jump, Ford brand trucks rank third in ALG's perceived quality score (PQS), and Ford brand cars rank 7th.

So there is still plenty of room for improvement. Ford cars are more than 16 percentage points behind number one Honda.

Not only that, but Ford trails number six Toyota (TM) brand cars, which has gone through five months of the worst news coverage any auto company has suffered since the Ford Firestone rollover controversy in 2000.

Toyota had been number one in the PQS survey ever since it was inaugurated, but it fell 20 percentage points - the largest drop since the survey began.

Don't count Toyota out, though. ALG says it "expects Toyota's PQS to stabilize and begin to improve over the next six months, with recovery of half of the recent losses by the Spring 2012."

Nor was Ford the biggest star in the survey. That honor belongs to Kia, which saw it score leap an astonishing ten points. It didn't schedule a conference call. Kia still ranks in the bottom quartile of PQS, just below Jeep, and just ahead of Suzuki (SZKMY), Chrysler and Dodge.

And right behind Ford in terms of improvement were Hyundai and Chevrolet with five percentage point increases. Chrysler and Dodge notched four point increases, as did Subaru.

All those upward moves make the ALG survey sound like a Lake Wobegon report card, where all the children are above average.

It may even be that the survey respondents don't know what they are talking about.

MINI, which finished tenth out of 25 brands, traditionally finishes near the bottom of JD Power's Initial Quality Survey, and came in dead last in 2009.

None of this to diminish Ford's achievement. "For nearly 5 years," writes ALG, "Ford has made a concerted attempt to build vehicles better aligned with consumer demand, limiting brand damaging incentive spending and daily rental fleet sales.

"These goals have been supported by an entire portfolio of all-new or redesigned products that have been well-received both in the marketplace and among automotive critics."

But it may be want to be careful straining a muscle while patting itself on the back. As Toyota has demonstrated, reputation is a fragile entity: hard to gain, easy to lose.

Writes ALG: "It takes years of concerted reputation-building efforts to bring a brand from a low perceived quality rank to a leading position (Hyundai is a good example of this." It goes on to say, "Reclaiming the top spot in PQS will be a herculean task for Toyota." To top of page

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