December 5, 2012
Lincoln’s billion-dollar question.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 12/3, 12:00 p.m.) Detroit. Last week, on the first of two media days at the L.A. Auto Show, the Lincoln display was filled with some of the most iconic cars from its history. The next day the entire display was filled with versions of the all-new MKZ. And on Monday, December 3, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Ford Global Marketing Chief (and Lincoln brand leader) Jim Farley went on a media tour in New York with stops at talk and business shows to introduce “The Lincoln Motor Company,” signaling the relaunch of the brand into the American luxury market.
And so it begins. The reinvention of Lincoln is going to be dominating the airwaves and media sites for the next 60 days. You won’t get far before running into a piece of communication about Lincoln. For instance the lead print ad that appeared on Monday in national newspapers provocatively asks and answers the following question: “Does the world need another luxury car? Not really.”
And that is the High-Octane Truth, because the U.S. luxury market doesn’t need another luxury car. It’s a segment already piled high with luxury brands like Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz all overlapping and sniping at each other for the same piece of luxury market real estate. And the wannabes like Hyundai are hovering at the perimeter waiting to gain a foothold. And now Lincoln wants back in hoping to shed its omnipresent status as livery transportation for major airports across the country?
It’s not going to be a cakewalk, that’s for sure.
And despite all of the orchestrated media hoopla and some pretty creative advertising and marketing thrusts in the works, the billion-dollar question remains: Can Ford resurrect and rejuvenate Lincoln in a luxury landscape that is fundamentally changed from the brand’s heyday?
My answer to that is a qualified “yes.”
The first thing that Lincoln has is a brand legacy with historical perspective. That may not count for much with the younger luxury intenders Lincoln is ultimately going after but it will count for a lot with many others – especially the members of the dreaded “older” demographic that marketers love to heap derision on – the demographic that may be unsexy to go-go marketers but the denizens of which have real money to spend on a rejuvenated name like Lincoln. Especially if the new “Lincoln Motor Company” resonates with them by featuring just the right mix of heritage, interesting design, a modicum of technology and of course, luxury.
But that demographic will not sustain the future of Lincoln. Make no mistake, the new Lincoln Motor Company and its dealers will gladly take this older demographic's money, but the focus of the rejuvenated brand is decidedly younger, as in anyone under 50. Then again that’s what every single manufacturer competing in the luxury market says as well. So what makes Lincoln different?
And this is where Lincoln brand strategists got smart and didn’t try to make Lincoln into something it’s not. Rather than go for the space that Cadillac occupies, which is as perennial German luxury car contender, Lincoln, in a tip of the hat to its roots, is going after the premium motorcar ideal, one not solely limited to luxury, but that includes refinement and a composed capability as well.
That means you won’t see any lap times listed by the new MKZ from the famed Nurburgring Nordschleife. And I say thank goodness. Believe me I’ve been to that famous track and it is an awesome monument to speed. And for certain high-performance cars those lap times do matter when it comes to marketing, but frankly, not every car needs to be designed to blaze a trail around the Nordschleife, and that’s a key distinction about the cars that will come from the Lincoln Motor Company.
(I loved the 50s rockabilly hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” made famous again by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in 1972 as much as anyone, but the notion is irrelevant when it comes to selling the new Lincoln.)
The understanding by Lincoln marketers of what Lincoln isn’t helped focus them on what Lincoln truly is, and I think that will prove to be a shrewd realization.
And what is the Lincoln Motor Company now? Its M.O. – according to Lincoln – is forward-looking and innovative design, leading-edge technology and a perspective on luxury that marches to an ever-so-slightly different drummer. “Cultural Progressives” who create and innovate in their own circles in their own way. Will that be enough? Other manufacturers could make some of those same claims easily as well, so my bet is that Lincoln will invest in maximizing the impact of its street look in order to be more on the avant-garde side of the design equation, and that will become the brand’s calling card.
And what about the product? I’ve driven the MKZ prototype and Ford engineers have done an outstanding job on the electronically controlled suspension system. Its composure over all surfaces while relaying a bit of a sporting feel through the wheel at the same time is impressive. And when you see the MKZ on the street its on-the-road presence is notable and eye-catching, with the design certainly resonating positively, especially from the rear.
The huge sliding glass roof is the MKZ’s calling card, but that has led to one glaring compromise, and that is that the car’s antenna is now prominently displayed on the left rear flank instead of on the back edge of the roof in a move that could be construed as delightfully old school, or one that has to be rectified as soon as possible. (I’ll opt for the latter.)
But in the end it all comes down to projecting the Lincoln Motor Company’s brand image in a positive and engaging way. Can Lincoln’s image wranglers breakthrough and create an aura for the rejuvenated brand that will lead to consideration? And will that consideration lead to real, sustained momentum in the market? Because that’s what this messaging – the social media, the print ads, the PR manipulations, the television commercials, etc., etc. – is all about.
The net-net of all of this image wrangling has to be that it must create buzz about Lincoln and resonate with younger buyers enough so that it will entice them to at least have a look. And then Lincoln’s dealership experience must live up to its elevated expectations, as promised, or the whole thing will come to a screeching halt.
Cadillac was able to nail its target for the ATS and it’s now at least in the discussion when it comes to comparisons with the heretofore-impenetrable brand reputation of the BMW 3 series. Most experts believed that to be impossible but to GM’s True Believer’s credit they didn’t compromise and brought out a car that is seriously noteworthy, and on many levels too.
And now Ford must create heightened awareness and raised expectations for a brand that has been barely on the radar screen in the U.S. luxury market for years.
And they must do this while 1. Acknowledging Lincoln’s historic roots. 2. Establishing new credentials for Lincoln for an all-new demographic. And 3. Delivering a personal ownership experience that is second to none.
A tall, complicated order to be sure.
Can it really be done?
I answered with a qualified “yes” earlier in this column, but this will by no means be a “snap your fingers and it will all be good” situation for Ford, Lincoln marketers or Lincoln dealers. This instead will be a long, hard road of creating expectations and then delivering what’s promised without wavering or losing the desire to see it through for at least the next ten years.
And it will demand a level of focused consistency by all hands involved that has never been seen before at the Ford Motor Company.
Given all of that I will add a “we’ll see” to that “yes.”
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
(Watch the Lincoln Brand Video "THE LINCOLN MOTOR COMPANY: TIME FOR MAGIC" here.)
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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