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The 2013 Lincoln MKZ. (SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS)
The 2013 Lincoln MKZ. (SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS)

Brand Strategy

Can Ford breathe new life into the Lincoln brand? Add to ...

The new Lincoln MKZ was the star of a private unveiling away from the hurly burly of the New York auto show. Ford brass hosted the show-and-tell to put the spotlight on Lincoln’s future, not the past disappointments at Ford’s under-performing premium brand.

The 2013 MKZ sedan looks the part of a luxury ride. It really does. Later, out on the floor of the auto show, Ford’s head of design for North America, Moray Callum, talked about Lincoln’s design direction. The critical pieces: 1) put Lincoln’s rich heritage in the back seat, metaphorically, of all future models; and 2) make sure everything Lincoln looks like the product of a blank-sheet approach, with absolutely no “visible connection to Ford at all.”

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If we do that, said the ever-affable Scotsman, “People will start believing we’re serious.”

Serious? Is Ford serious about reviving Lincoln? Company types say yes of course, but the proof is in the walk, not the talk. And speaking of walking, not many buyers are strolling into Lincoln showrooms with the intention of buying.

Last year, DesRosiers Automotive Consultants reports that Lincoln sold just 8,630 vehicles in Canada – with car sales down a whopping 9.8 per cent year-over-year, and light truck sales off 3.4 per cent. How sad-sack is Lincoln in Canada? BMW at 29,773 was the No. 1 premium brand in Canada last year, based on the sales of luxury vehicles alone. Mercedes-Benz was No. 2 at 28,584.

The Lincoln story in the United States is just as dismal. In 2011, Lincoln’s U.S. sales were down 0.2 per cent to 85,643 units. Lincoln sales peaked in 1990 at 231,660. BMW was No. 1 luxury brand in the U.S. last year, too, at 247,907. Lincoln has a long climb ahead to become an even marginally serious luxury contender in Canada and the U.S.

Some would argue that the full measure of Ford’s remarkable turnaround – Credit Suisse is expecting Ford’s pretax profit to come in at $6.7 billion (U.S.) this year – cannot be taken until the disappointing Lincoln brand ceases to be such an underachiever. At the New York show, the MKZ looked the part of a turnaround harbinger.

From its optional panoramic retractable glass roof to the scaled-down bow-wave grille, from the tasteful proportions to the push-button gearshifts incorporated into the centre stack, the newest Lincoln heading to showrooms in a few months’ time could be a contender. At the very least, it does not at all look like the 2013 Ford Fusion that shares its basic mechanical underpinnings.

Power? The MKZ will be offered with three powertrains: a 240-horsepower, EcoBoost, 2.0-litre four-cylinder; a 300-horsepower, 3.7-litre V-6 and a hybrid system based on the 2.0-litre powerplant. Again, what’s under the hood is competitive versus the natural rivals, from a BMW 3-Series to an Audi A4. Lincoln has the car and it will surely be priced in the mid- to high-$30,000s, but what about the premium karma?

Upscale buyers don’t just buy hardware, they buy into products and services that reflect their position in life, how they perceive themselves and how they want to be viewed by their peers. Wealthy people feel special and they want to look the part in every way. They also savour the kid gloves treatment. The Costco experience just won’t cut it, or at least that’s the line Lincoln and Ford executives are pursuing.

In New York, Lincoln types talked about offering a 24/7 Concierge Service that sounded similar to the Concierge Service the reinvigorated Acura brand in Canada is putting in place. You may even get handed a cupcake when you wander into the Lincoln side of your local Ford showroom. Yes, Lincoln has a great number of stand-alone stores in the United States, but that’s not the case in Canada.

So when Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, talks about treating Lincoln customers in “a certain way,” the question is, how would that shake out in Canada? We’ll see. Ford of Canada is putting some serious muscle behind the Lincoln revival. Ford in Canada is also learning from the parent company’s consultation with Les Clef d’Or – the international association of hotel concierges. Lincoln is planning a new, and we’re told special, approach to customer service.

Ford’s global marketing boss, Jim Farley, has spent a lot of his time talking about the opportunity here and he should know. Before being head-hunted by Ford, Farley ran Toyota’s Lexus division and before that he helped launch Toyota’s so-called youth brand, Scion. Farley’s track record suggests a savvy marketer with a good feel for nuanced and appropriate ways to reach and please customers of all types and incomes.

For Lincoln, Farley has talked about the reinvented Lincoln delivering a tight, focused lineup and selling them in dealerships where buyers will feel something akin to a personal connection. Clearly, Ford has put plenty of thought and resources into a Lincoln revival plan.

What are the chances of success? That’s hard to say. Lincoln faces plenty of competition in the luxury segment, particularly from the big three German brands – BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. At the same time, General Motors is on the precipice of a new-model blitz for Cadillac, Lexus is planning to turn over its entire lineup in the next year, and Infiniti has just started renewing what models fill its showrooms, as is Acura.

At the very least, Ford seems now to understand that Lincoln models cannot simply be rebadged Fords. That’s a huge shift for Ford. For the better part of the last two decades, Lincolns have looked like fancy Fords with hard-to-justify price premiums.

Ford is a healthy car company now, profitable, efficient and forward-thinking. Fixing Lincoln, however, will take every ounce of energy and creativity and commitment Ford can muster. Truthfully, what Ford does with the “new” Lincoln will tell all of us how far Ford has come in its effort to become a great, perhaps even a magical car company with a truly global footprint.

Or, to put it another way, how smart are the execs running Ford and how deep is the cultural change fostered by CEO Alan Mulally – the one that puts products first? Watch Lincoln and you’ll have an answer.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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