Lincoln Attempts to Reinvent the Wheel

Lincoln, has an incredible heritage, nearly a century old, as a premium brand. It had a long run with prestige owners and classic designs. But no longer. For several decades, Lincoln has been perceived as a boring car for very old people who are into cushy rides and waxing nostalgic.

The brand is now attempting a break-out reinvigoration to again become a top premium brand that will appeal to young buyers. The target is the BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Cadillac buyer. To take a tarnished, upscale brand that is buried in the graveyard (yes, Lincoln has brands with high recognition, but they are rarely considered a viable option) and convince buyers that it is again relevant to the premium market is the most challenging brand task imaginable. It will be fascinating to watch.

The effort rests in large part on the recently launched MKZ midsize sedan. The car looks right, with an appealing fluid design described as “smooth and soft,” an interior that is at least competitive, and a host of differentiating innovations such as push-button shifting, a panoramic glass roof, and a hybrid version that gets 45 mpg. They made sure that the car was very differentiated in looks and performance from the Ford Focus.

The car will be introduced through a set of TV ads that provide a link to the past heritage with glimpses of the some of the classic models and a full page newspaper print ad that explains how Lincoln “will become great again.” Plus there is an aggressive digital program that includes soliciting Jimmy Fallon’s some 7 million twitter followers to suggest text for the upcoming MKZ Super Bowl ad featuring the Late Night Show host. People that test drive a Lincoln will receive a diner reward, a “Lincoln date night” and there will be a 24 hour concierge to help navigate model choice. At the same time the organization has been renamed as the Lincoln Motor Company (both a step up and a step back in time from the Lincoln Division) and the customer dealer experience is upgraded to Lexus levels.

It’s a tough assignment, but it has been done before. And if the MKZ is as good as Ford thinks it is, Lincoln could be back. Cadillac came back from a similar point in 2003 with its CTS model. It was able to demonstrate the CTS could perform as well or better than any rival in terms of acceleration and drivability. It got further credibility and visibility through third party quality recognition. It took years, but Cadillac came back. Hyundai also overcame a disastrous and well-earned reputation for poor quality and design. They changed course, created superior cars that won awards and added some brilliant marketing. The result was impressive visibility, a revised image and a remarkable increase in relevance.

The key is the Lincoln MKZ. It needs to win some best car awards and get traction in the marketplace. It needs to achieve the delicate balance required to leverage the heritage into authenticity, personality, and self-expressive benefits rather than nostalgic charm. It needs to deliver an exceptional dealer experience that will validate and differentiate.

I’m hoping they pull it off. It would make a nice story and be a true win for US auto makers.

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