I’m reading this NYTimes piece on Ford’s use of “guiding personalities” (what we at NTM call “customer personae) to inform and shape their new car design. Ford gets this half-right. At NTM, we use personae all the time to help our clients focus on their core customer’s needs and wants.

What’s a customer persona? It’s a mini-profile, a biography that fleshes out your target demographic. When you have people from all over your company focused on your customer, it’s a lot easier for them to understand who “Bob” is if you’ve provided details of Bob’s life, then it is to understand that the target customer is a “male, 25-54 years old, with an average HH income of $75,000.” Much better to describe Bob:

Bob is a 40 year old middle manager at a logistics company. He’s married to Cheryl, who works part-time at a bank and shuttles their two kids (10 and 6 years old) around. Bob drives a Ford SUV. He wears clothes his wife bought him at Kohl’s and Old Navy. Suits aren’t required at his office; Bob wears the typical business casual uniform of khakis and a golf shirt. The family vacations in Florida each summer, often with another family. For fun, Bob likes to watch NASCAR and college football, especially UGA, his alma mater.

Get the idea? Now contrast Bob with Chris, in the same target demo as Bob.

Chris is an environmental engineer, 30 years old. He got his master’s degree in civil engineering and has been on the job for just three years. He’s engaged to Ashley, a public relations executive. Chris drives a Prius and shops for himself at Macy’s and specialty men’s boutiques in the mall. He has a killer margarita recipe, fancies himself a decent cook, and likes to entertain.

Both these men are 25-54 years old; both make $75,000, but they couldn’t be further apart. Fleshing them out, giving them a story, helps your employees visualize. So if they’re working on a product feature, they can ask themselves, “would this appeal to Bob?” (When we develop customer personae for our clients, we like to clip magazine photos to realize the profile more fully.)

OK, so how is it that Ford only gets this half right? According to the article, they’ve created Antonella, a 28-year old Italian living in Rome, to guide the design of the Ford Fiesta. Their thinking being that party girls are the same no matter what country they live in, and that Italians are experts when it comes to small car driving. That may be true, but the people designing and building the Fiesta are Americans who may or may not be able to relate to this young Italian donna. The whole purpose of creating the persona is so that your team can understand and relate to the person. It should be someone they instinctively “get” or know.

So kudos to Ford for trying. And hey, who am I to tell them what they’re doing wrong? But I sure would’ve used Ashley, a 28-year old living in Chicago, if I were developing their profiles.