The trouble with Ford's Lincoln brand is that no one cares about it any more.

Not long after I heard that Mark LaNeve, chief operating officer of Ford agency Team Detroit, was moving to take over direct operations of the New York ad agency Hudson Rouge for Lincoln, I heard that JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson was ousted. The two events are connected.

There can be all sorts of reasons why LaNeve, former head of sales and marketing at General Motors, is taking over the office that was under the direction of Cameron McNaughton since it was opened last year to serve Lincoln. But the bottom line reason: The plan to save Lincoln is not working.

As I was listening to the discussion about JCPenney's Johnson and his mistakes, I heard two talking heads discussing it. One said it perfectly: "Johnson's mistake was not in moving JCPenney to an everyday low-pricing strategy, it was taking the job in the first place. JCPenney has no reason to exist. It's reason for being is gone. It was once the place where America bought its underwear, but now they buy their underwear all sorts of other places."

I have been saying for about two years now that the trouble with Ford's Lincoln brand is that no one cares about it any more. Okay, Lincoln dealers and some current and ex-Ford employees, some of those in the airport livery and hearse businesses care. That's not a business model, though. Ford is going to try and force Lincoln on China, I hear. The Chinese want Lincoln? I doubt that.

I'm not alone. Ford CEO Alan Mulally was aghast at the Super Bowl ad as well.

The advertising for Lincoln since last fall has been a mess. The TV work has ranged from wallpaper that vaguely positions to Lincoln as a forward-looking tech brand to a truly strange Super Bowl effort that had some mystical indecipherable connection to Jimmy Fallon. I will give someone an AOL Autos iPhone cover and ten bucks if they can tell me what the hell Fallon had to do with that ad effort or the Lincoln brand. I'm not alone. Sources tell me Ford CEO Alan Mulally was aghast at the Super Bowl ad as well.

We have seen ghostly images of Abraham Lincoln, and reflected images of Dean Martin and Franklin Roosevelt in the paint of old Lincolns and the new ones hardly anyone is buying.

This past weekend, the debut of AMC's Mad Men was brought to me by Lincoln, so the ad billboard said at the start of the program. The ad I saw run on the show had no connection to the show, and I saw a bunch of other car ads as well. Lexus was in the second hour of the program. The sound you hear is me scratching my head.

If anyone has a shot at fixing it, Mark LaNeve is the guy. He did smart work at Cadillac, and then stewarded the "Mayhem" ad campaign at Allstate before coming back to Detroit last year. He is talking to dealers and Ford about how to fix things, at least in the short term.

But I wish his skills and experience were being deployed against a problem that could really be fixed. Like JCPenney, Kresge's, Gimbel's, Woolworth, Pan-Am, Blockbuster, Hummer, Plymouth and Lincoln's old showroom-mate, Mercury, the problem facing Lincoln is a staggering lack of relevance.

God himself couldn't save Lincoln and make it profitable and relevant again.

This is a brand that no one needs or desires. Desire was drained out of this brand in the last century when even Ford's senior executives stopped driving Lincolns. The latest crop of products wouldn't crack the top six choices in any category they compete in. And I feel bad about that. Watching Lincoln today is like watching an athlete try and perform in a game – baseball, football, golf or hockey – after he is beyond the age or skills to compete. I have an image of Arnold Palmer in my head – stiff-backed, stiff-legged and stiff-armed – trying feebly to get the ball around Augusta the last few years he played in the Masters. Arnie is Arnie, but it was painful to watch him play about as well as I do.

What to do?

  • If Ford wants to compete in the premium-luxury space, the company ought to do it the right way. Make Lincoln – specifically the MKT crossover and MKS sedan – a livery brand only for airport fleets, funeral homes, etc. If some retail buyers want those vehicles too, God bless 'em.
  • Phase out the current MKZ and MKX. Make the Navigator an up-market Ford Expedition or Ford Navigator.
  • Launch a brand-new luxury brand as Toyota did with Lexus. If playing in the luxe space is required for future growth and profitability, then start from scratch with a clean sheet of paper with a brand name that can resonate and achieve legitimacy and relevance. Lexus achieved that in less than ten years.
  • Have the courage to walk away. Admit that no one, including God himself, could save Lincoln and make it profitable and relevant again. People aren't buying their underwear at JCPenney. They aren't renting videos at Blockbuster. And they aren't going to buy these Lincolns.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Not only is this a poorly written bit of hokum, but the entire premise that, since "no one cares about" Lincoln anymore, they might as well shutter it, is proven false by the fact that a decade and some change ago people bought a tarted up Expedition with a Lincoln grille in droves. And guess what else? Yep, that's right, before the success of the Navigator, no one gave much of a shat about Lincoln. Hardly anyone outside of the age of 67 were buying Continentals, TCs or Mark VIIIs. We've been here before. All it takes to put some asses in Bridge of Weir leather is to produce product people want. You can't escape that fact. Build something people want and they'll buy it regardless of name. "Lincoln" isn't the problem, it's the people running the joint. It's the penny-pinching, micro-managers who can't figure out what people want to buy who are to blame.
      • 2 Years Ago
      If reviving a basket case of a brand was truly hopeless, then both Chrysler and Cadillac would be long gone. It takes executive commitment for starters, which Ford has only recently shown any signs of giving this brand. It takes a clear management vision. It takes a clear and concise message in the marketing. And most of all it takes great products, even if it's only one to start with. Cadillac is the obvious example. Back in 2001, Cadillac began to run an ad called "Moments" which was basically an ad saying "We're still here, really!". The ad showed virtually no current products, only aspirational concept cars, classic Cadillacs from the 50s and 60s and glimpses of the new CTS and the second-gen Escalade, neither or which were in the showrooms. Sound familiar? At least in Lincoln's case the new MKZ is actually in the showroom (although the launch was botched by not enough product). Lincoln first has to figure out what it wants to be. Does it want to be like Mercedes? BMW? Audi? Cadillac? Combination of the above? Next, it has to prove to everyone that it can build a world class vehicle in the given segment and not be afraid to go up against anything else. It will require billions. It will require platforms that don't exist. It will require commitment to new and revised engines and powertrains. (Has the Navigator seen a new engine in the last 5+ years?) And all of this would be required if Ford created a comnpletely new nameplate anyway. Yes it can be done. But it will take a decade. The luxury segment is still quite profitable as a whole but Lincoln needs that group to be as world-beating as the F-150 team. It can be done. But Ford, what say your commitment?
      Daniel Cowden
      • 2 Years Ago
      This article is pure BS! What Lincoln needs to do is simply build great cars. They need to clearly display theri passion for great automobiles in every car they build. This ain\'t rocket science. Just build absolutely kick ass cars. And make most of then rear wheel drive and compete directly with BMW and Mercedes and Lexus and Jaguar. Make better cars than Cadillac - show the passion.
        Dean Hammond
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Daniel Cowden
        making better cars than caddy will take time....look how long its taken them to get to the standards they have today...Caddy has a NICE lineup....the Z is the first step, the C is next...then its anyones guess, but they do need to adress their flagship and do something REALLY special.....or will we just see another stop-gap...
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Daniel Cowden
        @ Daniel Cowden: If you subtract out the whole new brand portion of this piece, basically the author said exactly what you said. What part of the following doesn\'t say that they need to \"Just build absolutely kick ass cars\" to you? Quote - \"If Ford wants to compete in the premium-luxury space, the company ought to do it the right way. Make Lincoln – specifically the MKT crossover and MKS sedan – a livery brand only for airport fleets, funeral homes, etc. If some retail buyers want those vehicles too, God bless \'em. Phase out the current MKZ and MKX. Make the Navigator an up-market Ford Expedition or Ford Navigator.\" - That touches on every vehicle they make now and calls for the outright death of some models and moving others to strictly livery/fleet status. Presumably, that would mean replacing these cars with vehicles better suited for a true luxury Lincoln brand. In other words, they need to do what Cadillac started over 10yrs ago and is still working on. Again though, it\'s going to take Lincoln at least that long to reach the same point Cadillac is at now. That\'s also assuming they share the same desire to perform such a massive turnaround. Based on their current trajectory and near-future plans however, it doesn\'t appear that they plan to make any such drastic changes.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Your narrative is wrong. Did Audi have a reason to exist in 1995? Did Porsche in 1993? Lamborghini? They were all dead. Lincoln is just as good a brand as Audi. We can see, however, that VW has greater talent than Ford in terms of brand management. Lincoln does not even manufacture the most popular and iconic Lincolns: Continental, Town Car, Mark. They are not even being offered for sale! Demand for true Lincolns is going unmet. Every American knows and likes Lincolns. I feel like I probably know more about it, from renting Lincolns in the 80s-90s, than Ford does today. Maybe I should be running Lincoln. The 2002 Continental showcar would be in production. It would be a huge hit. Traditional American luxury. It\'s not passe; it\'s enduring. What Americans don\'t love are Ford\'s new \"Lincolns.\" Because they are not Lincolns! Their proportions are not even close to right. You can tell 100 yards away. If VW were in charge, Lincoln would be all over China and an international sensation.
      Andre Neves
      • 2 Years Ago
      This article is a disgrace. Nothing but a hit piece.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Lincoln has an opportunity to make money, but it's all about the product and it's going to take time. It has to look and drive great, it should not share a platform with a Ford, and has to undercut the competition. Back in 1989, I was selling BMWs. We were horrified when Lexus came out with the new LS400. For $39,000 you got a creamy smooth V8 with 250 hp and Toyota reliability. The 535i I was selling had a 3.5 liter six cylinder and was about $10,000 more. It was the best thing that could have possibly happened to the Gerrmans. It has taken years, but ask any 30 year old today if they think Lexus and BMW/Mercedes have the same cachet and most of them will say yes. It can be done. I want it to happen.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Reviving Lincoln can be done. Stop talking to your existing buyers. Most of them are nearly dead anyway. Choose the buyers you want to have in 10 years and talk to them. Then start building cars they will want to buy. Just like Cadillac, it will take 2-3 model iterations to get the cars right and the message out. Meanwhile you will blow a ton of money. But if it works, you are the new Lexus.
      Rashard Longino
      • 2 Years Ago
      I saw a MKZ in person and was impressed. I think that a solid lineup that includes a car one size larger and one size smaller than the MKZ would be a good start for reinventing Lincoln.
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Rashard Longino
        The only problem I have with the MKZ is the antenna on the fender when you have the sliding glass roof. (Which really makes the car stand out) I realize the roof when it slid back blocked radio reception in the rear glass but they could have though of something better than slapping an antenna on the rear fender.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Anything can be saved the real question is how much will it cost and is Ford willing to invest in the model to the point that it can be saved. Too this point Ford has give a Luke warm effort in saving Lincoln. To this point all we have really seen are fancy Fords dressed up to be Lincolns. This is what killed Mercury and other brands like Pontiac that were only fancy FWD Chevys. For needs to invest in the car with a stratigy like Cadillac and have three solid cars that are RWD and AWD. Even a revival of a Town Car like the XTS could generate much of the money and prevent the others in the line being fodder for the fleet service. There is profit in this area and the XTS is the one to take on this burden while protecting the resale of the new and future other models. Lincoln needs to do more and they need to start now as they are of little desire to many anymore. Marketing is not going to save them unless they have something real to market. I am not a Ford fan but the last thing I want to see is another loss of a iconic American name plate or one sold of to China. Ford needs to come to grasp that those who want Lincolns are not people just wanting gimmicks in a car or a Ford with extra chrome. They need to concentrate and build a RWD/ AWD that can compete with the others. As we have seen with Cadillac of late even once you build the kind of cars you should be building you still have to work and continue to improve and prove you deserve and earn a spot with the others. It take time to build a great reputation and respect in todays car market. Other brands like Jaguar also are still working to regain what they so easily lost with neglect over the years. The Germans can be challenged but you have to have some skin in the game and commit to wanting to be there. Right now Lincoln is right about where GM was in the 90's with Cadillac. It took a while for GM to get serious and once they did they have gained ground. Lincoln is in need to do something now not later and they need to be invested in heavily now. It will take 5 years to see the results of what they commit to today. Time is wasting af every day they fail to move they are taking steps forward to fail. The only other thing they could do is down scale and become more like what Buick is working towards and be a low level player. The competition is less and people will forgive for at a lower price point. It is ok if they want to share a platform as it is a must anymore but they need to do a better job of making it a Lincoln vs. just slapping in more options chrome and a different name plate. With all the praise given to form management and Bill Ford the failure to fix Lincoln shows they are still human and far from perfect. If they let La Neve do what is needed and not micro manage his moves he could turn this around with the right funding and time. If they do not want to do that then just pull the plug and use the money at Ford to build more 3 cylinders.
      • 2 Years Ago
      If I were Alan Mulally, I would place Lincoln product development as priority number one. Unlike almost everyone else, Ford does not have any credible luxury products. Having one RWD competitor for BMW 3-series, 5-series, and 7-series is a good start.
      • 2 Years Ago
      As much as I do not like Lincoln, I do not want to see the brand die. I disagree with this article because I do believe that Lincoln can be saved. They just have the wrong people calling all the shots. Cadillac and Lincoln were once in the same boat not to long ago and look at Cadillac now. Lincoln needs to stop trying to take the Audi approach on luxury because it is obviously not working. Lincoln needs to fire all of their designers and engineers and simply start from scratch. Ford needs to fork over some serious dough so Lincoln can have the resources it needs to become a viable player in an increasingly difficult market. Lincoln SERIOUSLY NEEDS to develop its own platform, they need their own UNIQUE engines. Their design language is KRAP with a capital "K"!!! Lincoln has so much potential to be so much better than they are now. I would love to see Cadillac battle it out on it's own turf for a change. WAKE UP LINCOLN <--- FORD STOP BEING CHEAP!!!
        • 2 Years Ago
        Also consider: starting from scratch with a new platform would take at least 4 or 5 years even with a rush engineering and development team. This isn't WWII when we could develop and test an airplane in 18 months. The suits take years to argue and fart around and hold focus barf sessions. I think time is against the storied brand.
        • 2 Years Ago
        If Lincoln stops trying to reinvent itself based on the brand's history, and instead starts from scratch, what will the brand look like? What perspective can the "new" Lincoln bring to the market, or should Lincoln emulate one established brand with a slightly different spin? BMW, MB, Jaguar, Cadillac, Audi, Lexus, Buick - and to lesser degrees, Acura, Volvo, Infiniti, and Chrysler - all have well defined luxury market identities. And even these brands struggle with the occasional flop. I would not want to be the one running Lincoln's focus groups.
          Winnie Jenkems
          • 2 Years Ago
          That's a good point, but I would argue that nothing they're building now has anything to do with their history... at all.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I don't think Lincoln has ventured quite as far into oblivion as the author would like to imply. There are plenty of Ford loyalists out there, many of whom are in a financial position that allows them to consider a Lincoln...if the vehicle in question is worth the premium. There are also plenty of non-loyalists out there buying new Ford product as well. Lincoln is just barely starting to roll out their new product, so give them a chance. And they're backed by Ford, not Suzuki for God's sake. Does Lincoln need to pick up the pace? Sure! But if Hyundai/Kia managed to pull themselves out of the gutter, and improve to the point that they're selling vehicles (Genesis/Equus) that would've make more sense in a Lincoln showroom than a budget car showroom, then so can Lincoln/Ford. What Lincoln doesn't need is haters like you in the media further tarnishing their chances of revival right when they're rolling out new product. It's going to take a long time as evidenced by Buick and their revival...but they're doing a lot better today than they were 10yrs ago. I'm hoping we'll be able to say the same thing about Lincoln in 2023!
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