Lincoln, the Ford Motor Company’s once-great luxury brand, is in trouble and I’m not the only one who knows it.
First there are Lincoln dealers, many of whom are refusing to obey a Ford Motor Company edict that they spend millions upgrading their facilities to new company-designed specifications, because they don’t believe it’s worth investing millions in dealerships for a brand whose predicament seems to get worse by the moment. Then, there are the American people who’ve not been buying as many Lincolns as they used to; sales having been hurt, in part, by shrinking demand for full-sized, truck-based SUVs and the retirement of that old reliable, the Town Car. Then there’s the company’s management, which is looking increasingly pained making the case for its products and the brand’s long-term viability.
In this regard, sometimes it’s not what people don’t say, but rather what they do say that tips the hand.
So it was earlier this month, before unveiling its freshly restyled Lincoln MKZ mid-sized sedan at a private party the night before the opening of the New York Automobile Show, Lincoln treated the assembled throngs of cocktail slurping, canapé scarfing, visiting journalists to an overlong earful of high- (and low-) concept marketing speak, going on for close to half an hour with little effect, before finally revealing the car. When it appeared, the reaction to the new machine was not many degrees far off the wrong side of chilly.
With Jim Farley, Ford’s group vice president for global marketing, sales and service, doing most of the speechifying, attendees heard a lot of game but fundamentally silly talk about customer service and the nature of luxury, yet very little about the cars that are supposed to once again make people want to buy Lincoln rather than Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. It wasn’t hard to see why.
For better or worse, Lincoln is the Ford Motor Company’s luxury division. It’s also all that’s left of the once brand-rich automobile giant, besides Ford itself, now that the company has shuttered Mercury and jettisoned Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, Think and Volvo, as well as sharply reducing its holding in Mazda. And while the absence of these sometimes arcane and often money-losing brands was meant to return focus and funding to its core products, the Lincoln line-up has clearly not enjoyed these dividends the way the increasingly good Ford product array has.
In general, I believe in sparing car brands the ax when tough times come calling. Brands take decades and more to build and cost billions. It’s why I was against the closure of Oldsmobile and Saturn and why I am often overheard saying, "A brand is a terrible thing to waste." It is why I was happy to hear Ford wouldn’t pull the plug on ailing Lincoln. Now I am less sure. Sometimes euthanasia is the humane option.
I say this because I also believe that all the marketing effort and Dale Carnegie optimism in the world won’t trump an even more important truism: Product is brand. If you don’t have the goods, if the product isn’t credible, you won’t be able to fool enough of the people enough of the time for success to follow. A related truth is that in the modern automobile industry, you can’t make competitive products without spending money. So, very simply, Lincoln, with a product development budget this year alleged to be a measly one billion dollars – not enough to design a single car much less set a new luxury automobile standard for the world – is being starved to death.
And so it was that instead of talking about a really exciting new car and hastening to show it to us, Ford’s Farley felt compelled to begin the event by launching into a long, borderline impenetrable rant about the company’s new service, the Lincoln 24/7 Online Concierge. With enthusiasm seriously overheated, he described the new relationship Lincoln was forging with Les Clefs d’Or (lay-Klay-dor), a global association of concierges, before introducing an actual live concierge from an East Side hotel--a nice enough chap who spoke about the nature of his job, replete with a convoluted story about getting a visiting bride’s dress to her in time to make her wedding.
Perhaps I should have paid more attention, but in spite of all the talk it remained unclear to me how the 24/7 Online Concierge Service, launching in early 2013, would address any other question than the one where a young rich guy calls the concierge to enquire, “My wife and I are looking for a non-descript automobile from a deeply damaged luxury brand, preferably based on an obsolete Mazda6 platform. What can you do for us?”
“Ah, monsieur, you are in luck! We have the new Lincoln MKZ and, er, that’s it."
But would that were all. Lincoln Date Night was another customer-focused gambit trotted out that evening, wherein potential buyers are invited to go out for a night on the town, as part of an extended test drive. The company might even pick up your dinner tab. Might? As in if you go to the Olive Garden, and not a real luxury establishment? They didn’t say. But as Dee-Dee Boykin, Lincoln’s East Coast operations manager is quoted by the Automotive News’ Bradford Wernle, it’s mainly called Lincoln Date Night because “you’re dating the car.” Not creepy enough for you? Farley said Lincoln was also considering inaugurating a plan to celebrate “the first, second, third and fourth” birthdays of each car’s sale, on which festive occasions, one would hope, it will be uncouth to bring up the matter of the beloved birthday machine’s dismal residual value, or its replacement, though I doubt it.
Speaking to Wernle, Farley played down the fact that Lincoln dealers were in a state of near rebellion, refusing to spend money to refurbish their showrooms, in spite of Ford’s contractually rooted demand that they do so--the salesmen’s implicit calculus being that they believe (not unreasonably, need we say) that they’re not going to sell enough cars because Ford won’t fund good enough ones, to justify the expense. But the ever chatty Farley, who is -- sometimes more obviously than others -- the cousin of the late SNL comic actor, Chris Farley, had an over-the-top response when questioned by Wernle, one, it might be added, that is not at all in tune with his company’s legal department, which continues to make threatening, franchise-cancelling noises to dealers who refuse to comply with the showroom revamp directive.
“What’s more important to us is not the facility. It’s [the dealers’] physical commitment to the brand and their commitment to the training and ... and to [delivering] personalized experience. …That’s not what’s going to make us different – not the physical walls. Everyone can have a beautiful facility. But that’s not what’s going to make Lincoln great. It’s the handshake.”
So it’s not the dealership premises that need fixing, it’s the dealers, which Lincoln plans to fix by letting them go or training them better in the ways of luxury. Except, if they’re not going to spend the money on product, it seems to me that what Ford really needs to be doing -- Job No. 1, as they used to say -- is training the buying public better. Back in the day, people bought Lincolns because they were luxurious. Today they need to be made to understand that it’s not the car that luxury makes, it’s the concierge.