When GM axed four brands in bankruptcy, it seemed for one bright, shining moment that the era of America’s auto brand bloat was drawing to a close. No such luck. Both Chrysler and Ford passed up opportunities to hack off purposeless brands, and in doing so perpetuated some of the worst examples of brand engineering surviving in the US market. If there were one brand that needed the hatchet, it is and was Mercury. Now, after a decade of Jill Wagner-supplied life support, Ford is breaking the silence surrounding its entry-luxe brand, announcing that a Mercury-badged vehicle will be built “on the same platform” as the new Ford Focus. Put simply: the Mercury Tracer is coming back.
The automotive answer to the question “what do you call a tarted-up escort?” has been blessedly absent from the automotive landscape since the Focus replaced the Escort in Ford’s lineup in 1999. The Focus arguably ushered in Ford’s recent era of renewed focus on the blue oval brand, providing a far more sophisticated Euro-derived compact drive than the long-in-tooth Focus it replaced. Notice that the past decade slipped by without a single street riot of rampaging suburbanites, demanding a Merc-badged re-skin of the Focus.
In the second half of the last decade, Ford’s shifted its branding strategy towards ever-greater emphasis on the Ford brand. Though the mechanical underpinnings and exterior styling of the US-market Focus have taken a turn for the worse, entry-luxe gizmos like Ford’s SYNC system have proliferated into the humble compact, rather than being held out as enticement to trade up to Mercury or Lincoln. Meanwhile, decidedly up-market vehicles like the new Ford Taurus have steadily whittled away at any justification for Mercury’s continued existence. As with so many branding conundrums, Ford’s success in moving upmarket came only at the expense of its allegedly upscale cousin.
And now comes word that the new 2011 Ford Focus will be joined by a Mercury-badged rival, with two Ford dealers telling Automotive News [sub] that the new compact will bear the old Tracer nameplate. The decision is especially ironic, considering that the latest Focus re-unifies the American and European models of the Focus nameplate, once again lifting the Ford brand out of a compact-car rut by replacing an aged US-market afterthought with a fresh, European-developed, global model. If Ford had any sense, this vehicle would be yet another step in the premiumification of the Ford brand.
But that would make too much sense. Ford had reached a defecate-or-get-off-the-pot moment with Mercury, and without belaboring the metaphor, it has missed a huge opportunity to stand up, wipe off and move on. Given that the Tracer will be released simultaneously with the new Focus, there can be little doubt that it will be yet another cynical rebadge, with a few unique interior plastic compounds and a small factory’s annual output of cheap chrome hanging off its haunches.
From a business perspective, Ford can still cobble together weak justifications for this decision. A quick rebadge provide extra profit on each vehicle, meaning there’s little incentive to boost Mercury’s volume. As long as suckers keep being born every few minutes, Mercury will sell a few thousand rebadged vehicles each month. Besides, there are still Lincoln-Mercury dealers who need new product.
The downsides to rebadging the Focus are more subtle, and can’t be seen as immediately on the balance books. First, it prevents a definitive decision on Mercury’s future, and cements itself as America’s predominant purveyor of cheap rebadges. Given the steady disappearance of grossly cynical rebadges from American dealerships, it seems safe to argue that being known as “the rebadge brand” is not a recipe for long-term success.
Moreover, Mercury rebadges undercut the equity built up in the blue oval brand in two distinct ways. First, their mere existence implies a lack of premiumness in the Ford brand that must be overcome with two-tone interiors and cheap chrome. Secondly, by not offering distinct sheet metal, a McMerc’d Focus casts both brands in an unflatteringly cynical light. After all, even the most uninformed consumer can look at a pair of brand-engineered twins and wonder “do they think we can’t notice the difference?”
These impacts won’t be registered as visible declines in profit, but rather a long-term, lingering suspicion in the minds of consumers. At a time when Ford is making great strides in the public perception, consumers will point to Mercury as the most egregious example of the brand engineering that GM was most infamous for. Though GM still has more than its fair share of branding and product-differentiation challenges, at least its brand engineering have become far less immediately obvious on the street level. If GM “gets it” that Americans are insulted by rebadges, why shouldn’t Ford, which otherwise enjoys a more favorable image with the public?
In fairness, Ford’s product planners and brand executives probably aren’t especially proud of the last 20 years of Mercury products, and certainly don’t get any pride out of being Detroit’s new king of the rebadge. The problem is that Ford simply doesn’t have the cash to differentiate platform-mates the way Volkswagen, GM and others can. Since this is likely going to be the case for another solid decade, as Ford has ruinous debts to pay off, the Dearborn Boys should focus on what they’re doing right (Ford brand) and push extra development money into making a single line of well-differentiated luxury vehicles. Which should be branded as Lincolns. For the good of the whole company, Mercury needs to be shown the door.