How Lincoln could make itself special again

Ford's luxury division should start a service business and turn its brand identity into an exclusive club.

Things are going better for the Lincoln brand — or, more properly, The Lincoln Motor Company — so far this year, and are likely to continue to do so, comparatively speaking. In the first quarter of 2017, the brand's sales are up 8.7 percent compared with the same period last year.

Lincoln delivered 27,083 units in the first quarter. The Continental is certainly a boon, with 3,209 units (almost 12 percent of the total number), something Lincoln didn't have in the first quarter of 2016. Its crossovers, the MKC and MKX, were up 15 and 11.2 percent, respectively, and while the Navigator SUV was down 16.2 percent, the new 2018 model will certainly boost that nameplate. Still, there is undoubtedly a glass — or crystal — ceiling for Lincoln (as well as for Cadillac) that it's not likely to break through regarding total US sales.

No matter how you look at it, the US luxury market is dominated by import brands, and there is no reason to think that's going to change. Ever.

According to Autodata, for the first quarter of 2017 there were 213,817 luxury vehicles delivered, of which 170,780 were from import brands and 43,037 domestic. While there is a good likelihood that Lincoln will gain some ground, given the lineup extensions that the likes of Mercedes, Audi, BMW, and Lexus are making, as well as the creation of new brands like Genesis and the traction of Tesla, it is going to be all the more challenging for any company to get any significant growth in the luxury category.

So growth for Lincoln, yes. Notable growth? No.

But there is something the company could do to generate revenue separate from the car and crossover business. It may not make a lot of money in and of itself, but it can provide a distinct edge in the product segment that would cement Lincoln with a unique offering.

Kumar Galhorta, president of Lincoln, frequently talks about "experiences." About how the company is working to relieve or eliminate "pain points" from its customers. About how time — or the perceived lack thereof — is something Lincoln is working to address. And it's doing so in a way that gives it a distinctiveness vis-à-vis the competitive set.

Lincoln's services are creating a buzz in a way that Matthew McConaughey ads never will.

Lincoln is addressing it through service. As in offering pickup and delivery for service appointments for all new 2017 Lincoln models. As in having a capability on The Lincoln Way app that allows users (in select cities) to identify, reserve and pay for parking (rather than having to endlessly loop, thereby wasting lots of time). And, of course, there is the Lincoln Concierge service, which can address roadside issues and provide other help to drivers.

If you get a Lincoln with the Black Label trim, you get not only a car with special colors inside and out as well as better leathers and suchlike, but also the ability to get reservations at a specially curated selection of restaurants. Lincoln is providing integration with Amazon Echo so that users can tell Alexa where they want to go and the directions are downloaded to the navigation system. (The same integration is coming for Ford vehicles, which brings up Lincoln's recurring issue of separating itself, but we digress.)

And it is piloting a new service in Miami that it is calling " Lincoln Chauffeur." Think of it, in a primary sense, as one's own Lyft service. That is, a chauffeur is summoned, and a well-dressed, vetted person shows up at the designated place to drive you in your Lincoln. Say this person drives you to a restaurant. Then while you are supping, she can do other activities, like picking up your kids or dry cleaning. Lincoln is offering eight hours of service with a new-car purchase, valued at $30 per hour.

A reason Lincoln is offering pickup and delivery, why it is providing this driving and schlepping service, is simple: It is providing the company with tremendous word of mouth. Those who have experienced these services, Galhorta says, are telling others about what they're getting from the company they bought their luxury car from. They are creating a buzz for Lincoln in a way that an endless showing of Matthew McConaughey ads never will.

Ford Motor Company Vice President Kumar Galhotra was named president of The Lincoln Motor Company, effective Sept. 1, 2014. In this dedicated position, Galhotra is responsible for accelerating Lincoln further as a world-class luxury brand.

The ability to do things through an app — whether it is to remotely start the car or to text with a concierge — is simply a given, not only in the luxury space but all the way down the line. Someone with the myChevrolet app can remotely open their car doors, too. And Hyundai was a pioneer in this pickup-and-delivery space with Genesis and Equus, now moved over to the Genesis brand.

But this whole use of people to do things non-vehicle-related, such as grabbing your dry cleaning, is different, intriguing, and potentially a revenue stream for Lincoln. What if Lincoln created a special travel service, one that organized highly curated trips for those who are looking for a luxury experience? People would pay a premium for the service but obtain special access to sites and museums, properties and restaurants, that otherwise would be difficult if not impossible.

Going down a road like that would not entirely separate it from its core business of selling vehicles. All transportation — be it going from one's home to the airport, or traveling from Rome to Venice — could be done in Lincoln vehicles. All activities could be subtly branded with the Lincoln logo. Credit card companies already offer similar perks like exclusive restaurant events and pre-sale concert tickets. Lincoln could do the same and extend its brand identity to, quite literally, being part of an exclusive club.

People would come away, ideally, talking up Lincoln ("When we went to the Uffizi we were able to cut the line thanks to Lincoln") in a way that makes them feel and seem special because they got extraordinary service. I doubt that a BMW owner who even got a special tour of BMW Welt would feel the same. When I suggested the travel bureau to Galhorta, he said Lincoln is concentrating on things directly related to the vehicles, thank you very much. Which is probably what it needs to be doing, at least right now.

If, as some suggest, car ownership becomes less important to people but car access is the thing, how do you get someone to prefer your brand? Arguably it is by offering something no one else is making available. Something like an extraordinary service experience. Lincoln has a leg up on its competitors in this regard, even if is lacks the double-digit product lineup the import companies have. It should make even more moves that will put it further ahead.

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