Ford announced this week that it was shifting more of its production to small cars, and that it was going to bring some of its popular European small cars to the United States. The news reports suggest that Ford is finally making more progress toward standardizing models across countries, whereas in the past, the company focused on building different models for different local markets.
The Ford situation reminds us that there are two different reasons that firms customize their products for local markets. First, they might do it to tailor their products and services to local customer tastes and needs. This is a perfectly viable reason for localization, though of course, companies must weigh the benefits of local customization against the foregone economies of scale. However, there is a second reason that firms customize for local markets, and it is not value maximizing. As companies grow and develop local management in various countries, those organizational units grow in power. Sometimes, they become fiefdoms run by managers behaving like feudal lords. These managers insist of building their own products for those markets, rather than adopting global product platforms. Yet, they might be doing so because they want to control their region and accumulate more resources under their control, rather than because it is actually the right thing to do for the business. The Ford story suggests that firms need to be particularly attuned to this second, value destroying reason for local customization in different geographic markets.