Growing up in Indiana, Rob Johnston attended sprint car races with his father. He gained an appreciation for motorsports at a young age, but it took 27 years at Ford to garner his dream job as the Global Ford Performance Marketing Manager two years ago.
Recruited as part of Ford’s college graduate program in 1992, he brought the knowledge of a mechanical technology degree from Indiana State into marketing positions across the globe. Along the way, he endeavored in marketing capacities that touched on motorsports, including working with Daytona International Raceway and Sebring International Raceway.
We caught up with him during the Barrett-Jackson auction in West Palm Beach, Florida, which ran from April 7-9. There we had the opportunity to chat with him about how Ford Performance fits within Ford’s latest portfolio of brands.
Ford Muscle: Why is it so important for Ford, which was founded out of racing, to continue participating in and marketing with racing?
Rob Johnston: In any marketing platform that we’re looking at, whether it’s traditional marketing, motorsports marketing, or enthusiast marketing, it’s really important for us to find places to tell the Ford story. Ford’s a lifestyle brand for so many people. You see the lifestyle here at Barrett-Jackson. Motorsports gives us that opportunity to tell that story. We need to race the most iconic brands on the most iconic stages. So, if you look at where we’re racing today, and while we’re not racing the GT at Le Mans anymore, you know that we’ve got Mustangs racing all over the world. We’ve got Australian Supercars, NASCAR, and NHRA. We’ve got the Puma hybrid racing over in WRC globally. We’ve got the Bronco racing in Ultra 4. We’ve got Ranger Raptors that aren’t necessarily factory backed programs, but people are putting Raptor bodies on trucks and racing them in the Best In The Desert with Score, and we have the Ford Performance FPS 14 engine in Donny Schatz’s sprint car in World of Outlaws. We’re also looking forward to the future. If you recall back at the 24 Hours of Daytona, we announced that we were going to go back to GT3 racing. We just have that spirit that allows technology transfer and innovation from racing. There’s no greater place to learn and to test and to have that. It’s great for customers. It’s great for engineers to rotate through the programs and learn what it’s like to work in that racing environment.
FM: You just introduced another Heritage Edition GT. The GT is having a long, long ride into the sunset. I don’t think anyone’s complaining about that, but tell us a little bit about the latest Heritage car and what it means?
RJ: That product has been such a halo for the company. I have been working with the program for the last three years. When I started the job, we were talking about what are we going to do in the final year of the program. We didn’t want to just ride off into the sunset — because they’re all so great — but we wanted to take the opportunity to really honor the heritage of the vehicle. So, that’s why we came up with these Heritage Edition packages. It’s really all about that halo of Ford Motor Company. I had a kid that nearly knocked me over when I was standing there waiting on you. He’s like, ‘Here’s another GT, Dad.’ I can only assume he’s taking pictures of every GT he sees and that’s a key. That’s a young, future Ford fan.
FM: Obviously not everyone can afford a GT, so tell us a little bit about what you’re doing in that arena on the Mustang side of things?
RJ: We’re really excited about the Mustang, obviously, it’s an iconic brand for us that we love doing everything we can to make sure we get on with the heritage of that vehicle line. The Mach 1 is a wonderful vehicle and the GT500 has been a phenomenal hit. It’s just a testament that when you have a strength like Mustang, and when you have a strength like the F-150 and Transit van globally, we can electrify our most iconic brands, because that’s the way we’re gonna get the attention. Not everybody’s gonna like it. It’s a little polarizing, but that’s okay.
FM: Ford recently announced the separation between electrification, internal combustion, and business-to-business with Ford Model e, Ford Blue, and Ford Pro under its umbrella. Where does Ford Performance fit into this picture?
RJ: Yeah, that is a fantastic question. I’m glad you asked me. We were absolutely excited about it because we see the vision of the company. You know, when we developed Ford Pro last year, that was not a recognition of needing to fix the commercial truck business, It was a recognition that there’s more we can do with the commercial truck business. Same thing with Model e and Ford Blue. It’s a recognition that with these ICE vehicles, there’s still a big market for internal-combustion-engine vehicles. There’s still a need for ICE vehicles and those vehicles need to help us fund the research for everything else. I was talking to customers at Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale because we had our F100 Eluminator concept vehicle and we had the Eluminator crate motor there. What I tell people is that we don’t want the electrics to replace what you’re doing. We still want to sell you the Coyote crate engine, but we also want to give somebody that wants this electric crate motor the opportunity as well. I believe there’s a place for both in motorsports. There’s a place for Ford Performance to talk about both.
FM: What are you enjoying about being at Barrett-Jackson? What kind of things are people asking you about?
RJ: So here’s what I love about Barrett Jackson. It reaffirms everything that we do in marketing and enthusiast marketing. It’s such a wonderful platform. I just talked to a couple who were telling me about their F-150 Lariat that they bought recently. He’s sitting there asking me questions about the Lightning. He’s like, ‘How’s this gonna compare?’ Here’s a guy who’s got a capable truck, it’s brand new, and he’s all-in. ‘I gotta get one of these. Can I order it?’ Yes, sir. You might not get it for a while, but you can order it. You wonder where’s the ceiling? When I see the excitement of that F100, I don’t think anybody would have thought that that would have been the number-one media story of SEMA.