And then there was Lincoln. Having sold off Aston Martin, Land Rover, Volvo and Jaguar in the last two years, Ford's only luxury play now is Lincoln. To give it a chance to come back from its two-decade-old sales doldrums, Ford is investing in new products, increasing marketing spending with a new ad campaign and strategy, and even planning on taking the brand global.
On October 1, Ford started running a new TV ad campaign featuring actor John Slattery of AMC's hit show Mad Men. Slattery, who plays heart-attack-prone ad man Roger Sterling at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency, waxes about Lincoln's tech features. The ad asks: "If you are going to buy a new luxury car... shouldn't there be something new about it?"
"Smarter Luxury" is the idea that replaces the "Reach Higher" slogan Lincoln has been using for a few years. The actual line uttered by Slattery is, "It's not just luxury. It's smarter than that." Both TV and print ads spotlight www.Lincoln.com, a redesigned website.
Slattery is an interesting piece of casting for the ads, and Ford executives say that he will be a fixture in ads into 2011. Like Lincoln, Slattery's appeal is his connection to another time. The show is set in the early 1960s -- roughly the last time Lincoln cars were considered truly aspirational by well-heeled executives like Sterling. Lincoln's challenge in the U.S. is getting more luxury buyers to see the current lineup of Lincolns for the nice machines they are, and forget about the white belt and shoes crowd in Boca Raton that's been so fond of the brand in recent years.
The current product line is a far cry from the Town Cars popular in assisted-living communities. Indeed, the redone Lincoln MKZ, especially the new hybrid version, is an extremely nice car. It has been received positively by the auto press, especially for its 41 mpg EPA city rating. The MKT crossover is a polarizing design, but has received kudos for its engine and interior. The MKS sedan is a solid entry in the $40,000-$50,000 range.
"We are going to make Lincoln a mover and shaker in the luxury business," says Ford chief of global marketing Jim Farley. In the past, Farley has compared his vision of bringing back Lincoln to the comebacks of brands like Puma sneakers and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. "Comebacks are difficult, but they are very possible when you get the product and the message right at the same time." Farley has a soft spot for fixing Lincoln because his grandfather was a Lincoln dealer in Gross Pointe, Michigan.
Lincoln's high-water sales mark came in 1990 when it sold 231,660 vehicles. Sales were 82,847 last year. The brand is up 4.7 percent this year, but that lags well behind the 50-percent gain Cadillac is experiencing this year, as well as the 15 percent uptick for all luxury makes.
Product comes first, and Ford plans to give dealers seven new or significantly refreshed vehicles in the next four years. That lineup will include a redesigned MKZ, which will finally get a distinct look from the Ford Fusion with which it shares an engineering platform and assembly line. An entry-level sedan priced below the $35,000 MKZ will also enter the mix, as will an entry-level crossover SUV priced under $35,000. The Navigator SUV will be redesigned, along with the MKX and upgrades to the MKS and MKT.
Ford is trying to make Lincoln dealers more profitable and successful, especially after announcing that the Mercury brand, sold alongside Lincoln for decades, is folding at year-end. Ford is looking to reduce the total number of Ford dealerships by half -- to about 3,000 -- which will include eliminating most, if not all, stand-alone Lincoln dealership and merging them with the most successful Ford stores in the same market. About the dealer meeting Ford is holding in Las Vegas the week of October 3, Farley said, "It will be the most important dealer meeting of my career."
The current launches of the MKZ Hybrid and the MKX crossover give some industry critics, as well as dealers, hope for Lincoln. "These are incredibly well turned out vehicles with arguably better and smarter technology than the same priced BMW and Lexus models," says Los-Angeles-based marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "The rational reasons to want Lincolns are falling into place, but they have to get after the emotional reasons to close the deal with luxury car buyers who by and large don't see Lincoln as a brand to desire."
Indeed, one of the problems facing Lincoln with luxury buyers will be selling the vehicles at dealerships that also sell Fords. Lexus, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Acura, and Infiniti all have dealer networks that are predominantly or totally exclusive. Not only do luxury car buyers like their own, upscale sales environment, but its not hard to imagine buyers looking at a Lincoln MKS (priced around $45,000), and leaving with a Ford Taurus, built at the same factory on the same engineering platform and redesigned with a premium look, for about $32,000.
At last week's Paris Auto Show, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said that it is his hope to be able to sell the Lincoln brand globally after four or five years of upgrading the lineup and creating some marketing momentum. Mulally specifically said he thinks China is a market that will embrace the modern Lincoln products, as well as the brand's history.
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Lincoln was founded in 1917 by auto industry pioneer Henry Leland and later acquired by Ford in 1922. Leland named the company after his longtime hero, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has supplied many of the Presidential limousines through history including the one driving President John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated.
Ford is guilty of neglecting Lincoln in the last 25 years. Convinced that baby boomers would not gravitate to Lincoln, it bought Aston Martin and Jaguar in the late 1980s and Volvo and Land Rover in the late 1990s. Ford sunk billions into trying to fix those brands, while Lincoln largely languished. Ford executives rarely chose Lincolns as their executive cars, flocking instead to Range Rovers and Jaguars. For many well-heeled executives, Lincolns (Town Cars, for the most part) are cars to be driven by hired drivers when they head to the airport, not cars they want to drive themselves.
The shuttering of the Mercury brand this year shows that Ford no longer has any sentimentality for under-performing brands. Mulally has said more than once that he believes the company can be successful and profitable selling just the Ford brand around the world. His global strategy is, in fact, called "One Ford."That's seen as a dicey strategy, though, by some at Ford, and Mulally has been sold on giving Lincoln one more round of investment to see if it can earn its way out of the ditch Ford executives drove it into.