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2011 Lincoln MKX fully embraces Lincoln Signature DNA, including the new split-wing grille. (Ford/Wieck)
2011 Lincoln MKX fully embraces Lincoln Signature DNA, including the new split-wing grille. (Ford/Wieck)

Brand Strategy

Lincoln navigates a new path Add to ...

Ford knows there is a world out there for its Lincoln brand to conquer, but that's getting ahead of the story.

Sure, Ford would like Lincoln to go global, "but we are focusing Lincoln here in North America for right now," says Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas.

"We don't have any plans at this point to take it global. That doesn't mean in the future we wouldn't look at that, but it's very important for us to focus on North America."

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It's telling that Ford's senior managers would even entertain the idea of Lincoln expanding overseas. Not long ago, the harshest critics said Lincoln was all but dead and buried.

But Fields, global product development boss Derrick Kuzak and all the rest of the leadership group led by CEO Alan Mulally say Ford sees a big future for Lincoln and that's why they've invested so much in reinventing the brand.

Nonetheless, for now, they are much more interested in selling Lincoln's redesigned, built-in-Canada MKX crossover to Americans and Canadians, first - letting this and other new Lincoln products do the talking.

The new MKX five-seat crossover, which shares its mechanical underpinnings with the Ford Edge (but none of its body panels) is the best example yet of what Ford has in mind for every new Lincoln: smart technology, arresting design, entertaining but comfortable ride and handling and outstanding quality.

That's the Lincoln formula, Kuzak says.

"You win in this game with outstanding products that give real value for your customers," he says, pointing out that in the MKX, "We're adding lots of technology - in our case high-value technology. MKX has eight technologies, standard, that nobody else has."

Ford really does expect the MKX to pull in new Lincoln customers. Lincoln needs them. Let's start with the good news and then dig into the more troubling numbers.

Lincoln officials are quick to point to market share increases for Lincoln in both Canada and the United States last year: In the United States, Lincoln's share hit 5.9 per cent in 2009, up from 4.5 in 2005; in Canada, Lincoln's share went to 5 per cent last year, up from 4.7 in 2008.

The bad news? The fact remains that Lincoln's U.S. sales fell 23 per cent to 82,847 units last year. Lincoln sales haven't been this low since 1981. They peaked in 1990 at a very healthy 231,660.

Lincoln types believe the MKX can take a leading role in helping reinvent Lincoln. That said, they also say that what's going on at Lincoln is not exactly new - the product renaissance actually began in 2005 with a commitment to a coherent, cohesive product line.

Here's where the MKX plays a huge role. It was Lincoln's second-best selling vehicle in 2009 and is among four new vehicles Ford has rolled out for the brand in the past five years following Ford's decision to revamp the brand.

"Lincoln is in the midst of a true product renaissance," Bill Ford Jr., chairman of Ford, said at last week's Detroit auto show. "There is simply no question about what makes a Lincoln a Lincoln."

That wasn't the case just a few years ago. But in the last five years, Lincoln has added four new nameplates: 2005 MKZ, 2006 MKX, 2008 MKS and 2009 MKT. At the same time, Lincoln gassed three slow-selling models: the LS sedan, Aviator SUV and Mark LT pickup.

Scrapping the trucks and SUVs was critical in a market where neither type of vehicle is really key to success in the luxury game. Today, instead of having trucks and SUVs account for 43 per cent of sales, 92 per cent of what rolls out of a Lincoln showroom is a car or a crossover. Oh, and with the trucks gone, Lincoln's overall fuel economy has jumped 22 per cent since 2005.

The 2011 MKX, while not utterly new from stem to stern, is a huge step forward, Kuzak says. The five-passenger luxury crossover gets a flood of updates, including advanced features, an updated exterior, a new engine and a new interior.

In terms of design, the 2011 MKX has a version of the "split-wing" or "bow-wave" grille and LED taillights that Kuzak says are vital in making Lincolns instantly recognizable. Under the hood, a 3.7-litre V-6 boosts power from 265 to 305 horsepower with no decrease in fuel economy.

Then there's the technology story. New features include radar-based adaptive cruise control and automatic collision warning, blind-spot alert and sensors to warn of oncoming cross traffic when backing out of a parking space.

The Sync system for voice-control of phones, iPods and other devices adds a new function, too: the ability to tag a song played on a high-definition radio station for purchase. The tagged song can then be downloaded from iTunes to your iPod.

So this MKX signals that Ford over all is moving beyond mechanical buttons and dials on the instrument panel. But it's the Lincoln brand that is spearheading the effort.

The new crossover is the first of many Ford Motor models to adopt instrument panels with two liquid crystal displays and an eight-inch touch screen in the centre console. The liquid crystal screens show the speedometer, fuel gauge and other displays. The eight-inch screen controls the audio, navigation, climate control and phone. Eventually, the whole interior will go digital.

Naturally, there is a buzzword for all this: it's called MyLincoln Touch and it will be standard on all future Lincolns. (The technology is called MyFord Touch in Ford-brand models.) All the controls are touch-sensitive, but they can also be activated via Sync wireless technology.

"This is all in direct response to our customer concerns," says Kuzak, noting that buyers have said they need an easy and clean way to manage high-tech devices within their vehicles. MyLincoln Touch recently was named best new automotive technology at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas.

Beyond Lincoln, the 2011 Edge crossover will be the first Ford-brand product to get the technology, followed by the 2012 Ford Focus sedan and hatchback. The technology will be used on all Ford vehicles; low-priced trim levels will get smaller screens.

Lincoln marketing manager Amy Marentic says her brand will use the technology to separate itself from rivals such as Cadillac, BMW and Audi. With new designs being worn by new nameplates, Lincoln is starting to carve out its place with luxury buyers, she says.

"It's taken a while for the new nameplates to resonate with customers," she says, adding that even now, only about 8 per cent of Lincolns on the road are of the new "MK" generation that started to arrive in 2005.

"So the majority of what customers see on the road are older products - LS, Continental, Town Car. It takes a while for customers to see the new products. As we build our products, as we build our favourable opinion - which we are - we're seeing shopping of the brand and [buyer]consideration go up. And that's all on the new products. We are seeing momentum and share growth."

This has, of course, been too long coming at Lincoln. For most of the 1990s and into the early part of the past decade, Lincoln spun off profits from the giant Navigator. As one Ford vice-president once put it, "The Navigator makes enough money for me to make Jaguars [which lose money]"

Well, the Navigator is still here, but considerably less important and likely a model in its last throes. But Jaguar is gone, as is Aston Martin and Land Rover. Ford will next sell its Volvo premium brand. That means that, if Ford is to be successful with luxury cars, Lincoln is it.

"Our cadence on the new product front is very aggressive," Marentic says. "So you won't see what you saw in the early 2000s where there wasn't a lot of product news. You're going to continue to see Lincoln product news and that's something that Derrick (Kuzak) has instituted. You need a fresh cadence. And Lincoln has the freshest lineup of all the luxury brands."

Kuzak, in fact, argues that the new MKX and other newer Lincolns clearly demonstrate what Lincoln is all about. He, Marentic and others at Ford also suggest that they have a chance to revive Lincoln with reinvented products.

Indeed, some rival premium brands might be particularly vulnerable at this time. Many face challenges that offer Lincoln an opening. BMW, for instance, is finding it difficult to earn profits in North America as a result of the strong euro.

"I do think we have a real opportunity right now if we play our cards right with Lincoln," Marentic says.

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