These days what comes to mind at the mention of Lincoln is likely to be the currently in-theater film about America’s famously bearded, 16th president, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Yet think beyond the face that dons our pennies and $5 bills, and you might think of that company that used to make cars, and maybe still does. But if the brass of the newly minted Lincoln Motor Company has their say, things will be different, really soon.
On the heels of launching its all new 2013 Lincoln MKZ midsize luxury sedan, the luxury arm of Ford wants you to know it’s not just the luxury arm of Ford. At one time Lincoln was America’s most distinguished luxury automaker; its cars were big, heavy, and sumptuously appointed. But the Technicolor reel ended, and Lincoln remained.
Here at the start of December, just a few weeks away from 2013, we attended a small intimate breakfast in Santa Monica, CA, and got some one-on-one time with Matt VanDyke, the new director, Global Lincoln. VanDyke is subtly charismatic, not in the immediately obvious way of Hyundai CEO John Krafcik, but in a less pronounced, understated way. He’s not the bean-counting, Detroit business suit, although he does live in Detroit, and on this day, was wearing a suit. But somehow it’s that understated quality that resonates. After all, it’s elegant, understated luxury that Lincoln hopes will win the hearts–and more importantly pocketbooks–of what the automaker deems internally the “progressive luxury customers.”
VanDyke says these are customers that “may have leased a Lexus four times in a row, but are open to something with a new design, and that can give them a different drive control.” He mentions Audi, Infiniti, Acura and Volvo drivers among other prospective buyers. Surely Lincoln’s biggest domestic competitor, Cadillac, would be included in the bunch too. The automaker is also looking to reduce the average age of its buyers, from the current 65 years old, to 35-55 years old. From Centrum Silver to Viagra, maybe. But to go younger, there needs to be a dramatic shake-up not just in product, and in making more appealing luxury cars, but in how they’re presented.
When asked if there was a benchmark the automaker was aspiring to, VanDyke said there was, but it wasn’t an automaker. The company looked to long established luxury brands such as Gucci and Burberry—brands with recognized heritage that at some point had lost their way—but were able to successfully reinvent themselves for a new generation. For Lincoln, the order is tall. The good news is the consumer malaise regarding the staid product lineup of the past few years seems to have been recognized. This is the first step; understanding the lack of enthusiasm and actively putting forth effort to remedy that.
Lincoln’s new director outlined a number of initial changes that suggest a departure from the Lincoln of old. ”It doesn’t cost us any money to treat customers in a unique way.” Lincoln dealers are undergoing a retraining process on how they should treat these progressive luxury customers. Dealerships are being upgraded and there’s an impetus placed on having “differentiated people and spaces for Lincoln.” Additionally, new programs are in place to change the Lincoln experience. VanDyke says that starting next year there will be a “click-to-chat online concierge,” referring to Lincoln Host and 24/7 Concierge Service, a program that lets you connect online with a personal concierge that stays with you throughout the ownership process.
Another novel program is Lincoln Date Night, where participating dealers will lend qualified customers a Lincoln to take out for a night. Lincoln has teamed up with Zagat to identify local restaurants, and the automaker will give you a $100 gift card towards your dinner date. More traditional avenues include a new media campaign, including the automaker’s first ever Super Bowl commercial.
The good news for Lincoln is there’s already a fair amount of brand recognition. The bad of course being the automaker is most closely identified with its popular livery vehicle, the Town Car. Others may remember the Navigator, which the automaker still sells. But brand differentiation will be crucial. Speaking to this point, VanDyke said “we’re not going to stick a car on the Nurburgring and try and out-BMW BMW with our products,” a direct references to rival Cadillac’s ATS campaign.
A key challenge will be to shake the notion of Lincolns essentially being dolled-up Fords. The 2013 Lincoln MKZ is a good first step. The car looks good, and feels fresh and modern. Much is different than the 2013 Ford Fusion, with which the MKZ shares basic engineering, and while the two cars are the same size, and inside have near identical ergonomics and a similar feel, the MKZ is markedly better than the cars Lincoln has been producing the past decade. And while the MKZ is a good first step, we’ll be waiting to see what’s next before we start forming any concrete impressions. And while it won’t be a production model, we won’t have to wait long to see something else from the automaker; Lincoln will be showing off a small car concept at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And with four new models planned in the next four years, Lincoln will continue its reinvention, and we’ll be there to follow along.