Lincoln launches 'likable luxury' ad strategy

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Many marketers rely on hip-hop and bling to appeal to black consumers. Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln luxury brand is taking a different approach.

Consider the new spokesperson for the MKX, Lincoln's first entry in the compact crossover wagon market pioneered by the Lexus RX 330. Lincoln has chosen Amsale Aberra, a 52-year-old couture wedding gown designer -- and a native of Ethiopia -- for a commercial to introduce the model.

Ms. Aberra has a celebrity following among actresses such as Halle Berry, Julia Roberts and Salma Hayek. Amsale -- pronounced Ahm-SAH-leh -- is Ms. Aberra's New York-based wedding- and evening-dress house, which claims annual sales of about $30 million. The Amsale label is in the same league as Vera Wang, another high-end wedding-gown brand. Lincoln also hopes Ms. Aberra and her story will appeal to whites and other ethnicities.

"She embodies the American dream that crosses cultural and racial barriers as very all-American, and we want to celebrate that," said Marc Perry, the multicultural-marketing manager for Ford Lincoln Mercury. Uniworld Group, the New York agency specialized in advertising to African Americans, brought Ms. Aberra to Lincoln.

Since the late 1990s, Lincoln has struggled to find a consistent new look for its vehicles and a powerful new advertising hook. Now, Lincoln executives say they see an opportunity in carving out a position as an approachable and casual luxury brand. This is in contrast to DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz, which Lincoln labels as "Old World" luxury, and General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac brand, which Lincoln calls "Money-is-Everything" luxury. Lincoln wants to be the universally likable luxury brand -- the Oprah Winfrey or Ralph Lauren of the automotive world, brand executives say.

"We have a different set of values," says Lincoln Marketing Manager Mike Richards about other auto makers. "Our customers are not concerned about shouting about their success. Lincoln is not arrogant or boastful."

Lincoln executives say the company wanted to get away from the hip-hop image in order to broaden its appeal. In addition, the company is seeking to distinguish itself from other auto makers that rely on hip-hop in their marketing.

In recent years, when auto companies have sought to make their products cool, they have turned to hip-hop stars. Chrysler, for example, had Snoop Dogg, and before that it dropped singer Celine Dion in favor of hip-hop star Missy Elliott.

Lincoln hooked up with hip-hop star Kanye West, who featured two Lincoln vehicles in his music video, "Drive Slow," and the company hosted his Grammy party last year. But Lincoln says its relationship with Mr. West has ended, and it is now focused on its partnership with Ms. Aberra and other initiatives to make Lincoln an "approachable" brand.

Initially, the commercials featuring Ms. Aberra were slated for the minority media and certain urban markets. But Lincoln later decided to include the Amsale ads in Lincoln's general market ads, shown on prime-time television. Next year Lincoln says Ms. Aberra will participate in other promotional efforts for the new Lincoln. "This is an important product line for us to get young people to consider Lincoln. Amsale represents an agent of change," Mr. Perry says.

Lincoln's new ads also feature Scott Tucker, a black furniture designer, in a Lincoln Navigator ad. It's part of Lincoln's overall "Reach Higher" campaign.

Lincoln's shift comes as rival Cadillac, having capitalized on rappers and athletes to promote its flashy Escalade SUV, now also is trying to broaden its appeal to those who may be turned off by hip-hop. At a Power Point presentation for the media last year, Cadillac showed crooner Frank Sinatra and hip-hop star 50 Cent as the two extremes of its image. Cadillac is seeking a more middle ground. A recent commercial for the Escalade featured New York Giants running back Tiki Barber.

Lincoln was the best-selling luxury brand in America in 1998, with hits like the Navigator, which started the luxury SUV craze, and the venerable Town Car, the limousine of choice in New York and other large cities.

But Ford allowed the Lincoln lineup to get rusty as it invested instead in its Premier Automotive Group of European luxury brands, including Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin. While Lincoln's competitors, notably Cadillac, came up with refreshed models and new segment entries, Lincoln lost ground. In 2005, Lincoln sales fell 11 percent, putting Lincoln in 8th place among major luxury-car brands in the U.S. Last year, Lincoln sales fell 2.2 percent

Lincoln's new strategy could backfire, because many luxury-vehicle buyers purchase a vehicle precisely because they want to flaunt their success. In a recent Luxury Institute automotive brand survey, Lincoln was at the bottom of the list of luxury cars when it came to brand status, quality, perception of exclusivity and social status. "The American consumer is looking for American luxury, so Lincoln does have a chance," Luxury Institute CEO Milton Pedraza said. "Still, Lincoln has a lot of work to do."

Lincoln is banking on four redesigned or new products that are hitting the market within a four-month period. First out is the MKZ, formerly known as the Zephyr, which went on sale in September.

Lincoln also just launched the MKX crossover wagon. The target customer for the MKX, which has a starting price of $34,795, is 60 percent female and the average age is 35 years old. That compares to the 69-year-old male buyer of a Town Car. Lincoln is hoping to sell 35,000 MKX's the first year the car is on the market, compared to the more than 108,000 RX Lexus models sold last year.

On Sunday, Lincoln unveiled the MKR concept sedan at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ford says the vehicle reflects the future design direction of Lincoln, which includes a new double-wing, slanted grille and thin, horizontal tail lamps that Lincoln calls sophisticated and modern. In the past, the brand had been criticized for not having exciting designs.

In conjunction with the product launches, Lincoln will be spending more than it ever has on marketing, although it declined to give a budget figure.

"With the products we have now, I think customers will see us in a new light," said Al Giombetti, of Ford Lincoln Mercury marketing and sales.



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