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Making Lincoln relevant to buyers will be a tough job

Jim Farley, Ford Motor Company, Group Vice President, Global Marketing, Sales and Service, in front of the new 2013 Lincoln MKZ at its unveiling.


Jim Farley is a high-octane car guy who never seems able to sit still for long and, given the size of the job he faces in leading a revival of Ford's Lincoln brand, that's a good thing. The job will require all the energy and creativity he can muster and sustain.

Lincoln isn't dead. That's not fair and it's not accurate. What is apropos is this: Lincoln is as close to irrelevant as any luxury brand in the world. Farley's job, then, as Ford's executive vice-president of global marketing, sales and service and Lincoln, is to make Lincoln relevant and then hope that more than a handful of buyers notice.

I say good luck to him. When I suggest the job is all but impossible, that after decades of neglect, reinventing Lincoln is as close to a lost cause as I've seen in the 27 years I've been covering the car business, he displays a deft touch.

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"You're smart to look at the reinvention of a brand like Lincoln with skepticism and respect," says Farley. "I understand exactly what you're saying. Trust me. The real proof point of Lincoln will be the execution of the product." In a nutshell, he adds, Ford is going to do whatever it takes to fix Lincoln and he – as head of the project – has the resources needed to do it.

So let me ask you: Have you noticed the start of this Lincoln revival? Because the game is afoot. The all-new 2013 Lincoln MKZ is on sale and, across both Canada and the United States, Lincoln is dressing up dealership space and putting in place the kind of customer service practices and procedures that luxury buyers expect to find. By 2014/2015, adds Farley, Lincoln will have a full lineup of new models to go with the saucy, Ford Fusion-based MKZ. If Lincoln's sales don't spike to match Ford's investment, if four new vehicles over the next four years don't do the trick – well, then we'll work even harder on this Lincoln project, says Farley.

Here's the scope of the problem. Last year, Canadians bought about 8,000 Lincolns in Canada and another 80,000 or so in the United States. Ford of Canada, meanwhile, was the No. 1 auto maker by sales in Canada in 2012 with 275,953 vehicles sold. Lincoln represented about 3 per cent of Ford's Canadian sales. Lincoln is a blip, an undefined premium entity faced with the massive strength of power German and Japanese premium brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus. The story is exactly the same in the United States. Lincoln doesn't have a poor image. It has no image. Lincoln means nothing. And Lincoln buyers are among the industry's oldest, with an average age of 65.

It's Farley's job to change that. He is a marketing wunderkind, after all. Farley was personally recruited from Toyota in 2007 by Ford CEO Alan Mulally to jolt Ford's marketing. The Lincoln part of his job started to take form three years ago as part of a larger plan to reinvent the Ford Motor Co. which, at the time was essentially bankrupt – running $23.5-billion (U.S.) in borrowed money. Ford is profitable now, of course, and has the coin to invest in an expensive expansion of a moribund luxury brand.

As Daniel Howes put it recently in The Detroit News, the first and most obvious question is this: will this suite of new Lincolns be much different than the Fords on which they are now and will apparently forever be based? How will new Lincolns distinguish themselves from other Fords with "their blue-collar Blue Oval parentage?" Is there something more to this Lincoln revival than a new website, nicer showrooms and badge engineering?

For an answer, consider Audi, the sprawling Volkswagen Group's big luxury brand. Those flashy Audis actually ride on platforms that start life as Volkswagens. This strategy works. Audi is on the verge of becoming the world's largest premium car brand by sales and Audi spins up massive profits because it shares so much engineering and so many parts with Volkswagen. Badge engineering, if done well, can work.

But let's be clear: Audi doesn't build Audis in VW plants. Audi does its own assembly, has its own design centre and customizes the engineering of every vehicle in its lineup. Those well-heeled buyers are picky, after all.

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Lincolns, on the other hand, will be built in Ford plants. In the long term, as Howes points out, Ford will need to "depart from the deeply held tradition of deriving luxury cars from the mass-market parts bin, building them alongside Ford models and selling them through the same dealer network." When will that happen, if ever? Farley won't commit.

Then again, he has plenty to keep him busy. For instance, Lincoln will spend $4-million (U.S.) for a one-minute spot during the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. Farley has never been one to advocate a Super Bowl spend unless it is absolutely necessary to herald something spectacularly new.

"The most important thing is for people to be aware that there is a transition going on," Farley told The New York Times. "We have to shake them up."

CEO Mulally and Farley were also busy last month hosting a press conference at the Lincoln Center in New York to announce the rebranding of Lincoln as Lincoln Motor Co., the name it had when Ford purchased Lincoln in 1922. Farley also has appointed Matt VanDyke to run Lincoln's rebirth on a day-to-day basis. He's Lincoln's global head of marketing, sales and service.

The Lincoln relaunch is moving more slowly in Canada, but will essentially mimic the United States, says Ford of Canada marketing director Paul Roy. At some point, we may even see full-page print ads such as those that have run in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today – ads provocatively asking: "Does the world need another luxury car? Not really."

Except, of course, it does. And Lincoln, as Automotive News reports, is going show exactly how to fill an "an unfilled need in the luxury space." As Farley and I discuss Lincoln, he refers to the "new" customers Lincoln wants. They're called "cultural progressives" who, as Automotive News has described them, "are curious about new experiences, open to new ideas and younger and wealthier than Lincoln's current customers."

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Farley says he left Toyota to do the sort of thing he's spearheading with Lincoln. The newly christened Lincoln Motor Co. is shaping into a separate unit within Ford, one with its own management and design centre and he's in charge. Farley himself reports to Mulally and is said to be a contender to one day replace the 66-year-old CEO when he retires.

I'd argue that Ford has no choice but to make Lincoln relevant again and here's why: Lincoln is Ford's only premium brand. Gone are the European luxury brands – from Volvo to Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. If Ford's turnaround is to be judged a success, the Lincoln re-boot must work. Without a successful and profitable premium brand in its stable, Ford will never be considered a truly global auto maker of merit.

I remain skeptical. If Audi is the model, then Ford must demonstrate a similarly deft a touch with engineering and design – one we have yet to see and one which took decades to develop within the VW Group. Moreover, will Ford stay the course even if the early Lincoln returns are meagre? And what of Canada? Can Lincoln become relevant without its own string of premium dealerships? Audi has stand-alone dealerships in Canada, as do BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Why no stand-alone Lincoln stores?

It's going to take great energy to fix Lincoln. I can say this: Farley has loads of energy.

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