Ford Redoubles Effort to Reawaken Its Sleepy Lincoln Brand

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DEARBORN, Mich. -- In the fiercely competitive world of luxury cars, the Ford Motor Company's Lincoln brand has long been stuck in the slow lane, with stodgy models, older buyers and a distinct lack of pizazz.

But Ford is determined to change that. On Monday, the company will announce upgraded customer service initiatives, a new brand name for Lincoln that plays down the Ford connection and an unusual advertising campaign that features Abraham Lincoln, the president for whom the brand is named.

Ford's chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, will begin the rebranding effort at an event outside Lincoln Center in Manhattan -- the first in a series of moves meant to reverse Lincoln's seemingly perpetual state of decline.

Ford will formally rechristen the brand as the Lincoln Motor Company and introduce a television spot that begins with an image of Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all. The brand's first Super Bowl commercial is in the works, as is a revamped Web site that links consumers to a Lincoln "concierge" who can arrange test drives or set up appointments at dealerships.

Mr. Mulally will also announce the on-sale date in early 2013 for the radically redesigned Lincoln MKZ sedan, as well as plans for three new vehicles down the road.

If it seems like an all-out grab for attention, well, that's exactly the point, said James D. Farley Jr., Ford's head of global sales and marketing and the newly named chief of the Lincoln revival effort.

"The most important thing is for people to be aware that there is a transition going on," Mr. Farley said. "We have to shake them up."

The shake-up is long overdue and critically important to Ford, the nation's second-largest car company behind General Motors.

As recently as the 1990s, Lincoln was the top-selling luxury automotive brand in the United States. Its large Town Car sedan and hulking Navigator S.U.V. defined the brand, and sales topped more than 230,000 vehicles a year.

But since then, Lincoln has been left in the dust by the German category leaders BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota's Lexus division. This year, Lincoln ranks eighth in the American luxury segment, with sales down 2 percent, to 69,000, vehicles in the first 10 months of the year.

Its crosstown rival G.M. has had much better success reviving its Cadillac brand.

"Cadillac has been stabilized, but Lincoln is still muddling about," said Jack Trout, president of the marketing firm Trout and Partners. "The big question is, how can Lincoln convince people it is more than just a gussied-up Ford?"

That task has now fallen to Mr. Farley, who left Toyota five years ago to join Ford just as Mr. Mulally's transformation of the company was under way. Since then, Ford has introduced a succession of sleeker, more fuel-efficient and technology-laden models that have lifted sales and made it among the most profitable car companies in the world.

Lincoln, however, has not benefited from the turnaround. It accounts for only 3 percent of Ford's total sales, down from 8 percent during the brand's heyday. And since Ford has sold off foreign luxury divisions like Volvo and Jaguar, Lincoln is the sole upscale brand in the company.

"There is nothing more frustrating for us than to have someone who loves their Ford car and S.U.V., but goes out to buy a luxury model from another brand because we don't have one," Mr. Farley said.

The Lincoln comeback effort starts with the midsize MKZ, which has been redesigned with a sweeping grille, tapered body style and an all-glass retractable roof. It will be followed by three other new models, including a larger sedan and S.U.V.

But the brand's image needs much more than better cars. Under Mr. Farley's direction, a newly formed team of 200 people is intent on establishing the Lincoln Motor Company as a boutique luxury line known for personalized service.

Every customer who reserves an MKZ, for example, will be presented with an elegant gift upon receiving the car. Choices include a selection of wines and Champagne, custom-made jewelry or sunglasses, or a one-night stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Lincoln's Web site will also have a consultant available 24 hours a day for live discussions about the products and to streamline the buying process. Prospective buyers will be given an opportunity for a "date night" with Lincoln, which includes a two-day test drive and a free meal at a restaurant.

The brand's 300 dealers across the country are learning the new tenets of luxury service at training sessions nicknamed the Lincoln Academy. A 108-page manual of "luxury truths" details the new approach to pampering potential buyers, from how to welcome them at a dealership to celebrating the anniversary of their purchase.

Lavishing attention on luxury buyers is hardly a new idea. Lexus and BMW have been perfecting their sales experiences for years. The new Lincoln philosophy borrows heavily from those models, but emphasizes the one-on-one relationship between sales employees and consumers.

"Offering better hospitality doesn't cost us a dime," said Kevin Cour, who was recruited from Toyota to become the new head of Lincoln's dealer operations.

Changing Lincoln's image from stuffy to stylish is a higher hurdle to clear. The new advertising campaign mixes the heritage of classic Lincolns of the 1950s and '60s, including presidential limousines, with dreamy shots of the new MKZ. And for the first time, the brand uses Abraham Lincoln as a metaphor for its cars.

"The name Lincoln has very strong meaning for this country," Mr. Farley said. "What he stood for as president was independence, fortitude and elegant thinking."

The connection with "Lincoln," the new Steven Spielberg film about the widely admired president, is both fortunate and coincidental. "We didn't plan it that way," said Matt VanDyke, the division's senior marketing executive. "But sometimes it's better to be lucky."

The specific ad for the Super Bowl in February is still in development. But Ford's commitment to advertise during the most-watched television program of the year underscores how serious the company is about raising Lincoln's profile.

"It's a gigantic audience and an opportunity to make a statement," Mr. Trout said. "It has to be dramatic, and feel like Lincoln is going to look and act like a different company."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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