Opinion: Ford's New Lincoln Push Is All Uphill Against Rivals

Ford's luxury brand looks to overhaul image without a new lineup

Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln division has a new name. Henceforth, cars will be marketed as coming from the Lincoln Motor Co., an attempt to give the long struggling luxury division of the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker some identity apart from Ford's Focus sedans and pickup trucks.

New name aside, it's going to take a lot of work and a new stable of vehicles for the luxury brand to regain its stature with car buyers looking at Cadillacs, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes.

After decades of abuse--selling rebadged Fords and stodgy airport cars like the Town Car -- Lincoln's brand equity has faded like the paint on a Continental left to molder in the back yard. The average age of its buyers are 65, and less than half of Lincoln buyers are coming from other luxury brands.

The star of Lincoln's current attempt at a revival is the 2013 MKZ. While the former MKZ was a barely differentiated version of the Ford Fusion, the new MKZ has its own sleek look, minimalist state-of-the-art interior and features like push-button gearing on the dashboard instead of a console or steering column mounted gear shifter. See our review of the 2013 MKZ here.

Identifying the problem

The problem isn't that Lincoln needs a name change; it needs a product overhaul. It needs competitively priced, exceptional vehicles instead of high-priced Ford products. It needs a younger following; an identity that says Lincoln is cool, fun, and luxurious. Right now, no matter what Lincoln wants to call itself, Lincoln has as much mojo as a bag of sand.

This, of course, is not news to Lincoln officials. They've been talking about remaking the luxury brand for years. The product revolution is always right around the corner in yet again a flurry of hype and marketing speak.

Seriously. The boaty-looking MKT was supposed to be a leader in the large crossover segment. It failed to catch on and has been designated as an airport livery vehicle, a move which will further kill its retail appeal for try luxury buying consumers. The MKX crossover, which looks all too similar to the Ford Edge it is based on, was supposed to challenge stalwarts like the Lexus RX350, but has failed to ignite. The flagship MKS sedan was going to invigorate the brand with its EcoBoost power-train and plush interior, but it is over-priced and underwhelming compared to other cars in the $50,000 neighborhood.

Pardon my misgivings, but saying Lincoln is ready to pounce on the likes of Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus, or any other luxury or premium brand seems as foolish as saying Mitt Romney can still win the election. Lincoln, because of its lackluster, out-of-date image, is going to have trouble even gaining sales from Ford customers looking for a step up.

Finding new customers

Through November, Lincoln sales are down 3.2 percent, while the industry is up 13.9 percent for the same time period, according to AutoData Corp. But more telling is that Lincoln's volume remains embarrassingly low.

In November, the best month for auto sales since 2008, Lincoln sold a total of 5,732 vehicles, down 9.1 percent compared to last November. Meanwhile, Acura sales rose 23.6 percent for the month, to 12,246 units; Infiniti sales climbed 41.2 percent to 11,897 units; Cadillac sold 14,517 units, up 30.3 percent; and BMW sold 36,484 cars and trucks, up 38.7 percent.

Lots of people want luxury cars, as sales in the segment indicate. But convincing them to sign up for a Lincoln ahead of other much more contemporary brands is a hard sell and a long walk.

The $1 billion investment

Ford recently announced it was pumping $ 1 billion into Lincoln in the way of new products and marketing. And to lead the change, Ford has appointed its top-dog marketing chief to specifically run Lincoln and be accountable for its success or failure. That's a welcome change since the brand, for the last several years, has had no manager that held the position. The brand was run by committee.

Lincoln will begin new print ads this week first asking the question, "Does the world need another luxury car?" Next week, it has a campaign beginning called "Hello, again" as Lincoln attempts to introduce itself again to consumers.

Meanwhile, there is a new digital and television marketing campaign, including a Super Bowl spot created via social media under the watchful eye of late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon.

Fallon tweeted Monday: "Lincoln hired me to write a BIG commercial and I need you guys to help me."

The idea is to have people create an all-new campaign in 140 characters or less. It's also to show that Lincoln has a Twitter account. Of course, by definition, Lincoln getting a Twitter account could suggest that Twitter is on its way out.

While all of these much needed changes had to be done, it only emphasizes how badly the Lincoln Motor Co. has been neglected. More than a decade ago, Ford began collecting European luxury brands--Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin--because it saw Lincoln as insufficient to challenge German and Asian luxury brands. Ford has sold off all those brands, and finds itself back with only Lincoln to slug it out in the luxury market.

"We feel like we can create a whole new experience for people that starts with the vehicles but is very much about how our buyers get treated at the dealership, and by Lincoln Motor Co.," says Matt Van Dyke, global head of Lincoln marketing, sales and service. "We see our competitors having gone to--let's say a big box store impersonal experience--and we feel we can take an approach like that of a boutique luxury hotel."

The Lincoln name may be hot right now because of the blockbuster hit movie from Stephen Spielberg. But that will be fleeting. There is something about "Lincoln" in the car business in the 21st century that simply has the ring of yesterday and long ago. Not relevant today. And that is enormous baggage for even great new products and captivating advertising to make up for.

Finding hope

As much as I hope Lincoln succeeds – a better luxury segment, especially in Detroit, is better for everyone -- the billion-dollar answer is not a new advertising campaign or even treating customers like kings at the dealership.

The answer, if it has any chance of surviving, is going to be great product, and more great product. It's not TV commercials that last a month or two, but a consistent, sustained effort pitching Lincoln for the next few years in a way that is attractive and makes sense to luxury buyers with lots to choose from. Memorable product and memorable advertising, done well, over a period of years, not months, is the recipe.

Real buzz about Lincoln's vehicles will begin only when a true flagship vehicle arrives that makes not only customers, but Lincoln's rival, quake. No one is going to buzz about a car that is pretty good and is priced $10,000 more than its competition as a loaded MKZ is.

It's hard to see that this car is really going to turn some heads and post respectable sales in a year or so. If I am right, and Ford's patience wanes, then it may be time to take what's left of that billion dollars and start a new brand from a clean sheet of paper.

Given the billions upon billions Ford spent to try and fix the European brands it already sold off, and now Lincoln, maybe it would be best to start over from scratch with a really new idea and new name to go with it.


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