Has Ford Learned Its Lincoln Lesson?
The Blue Oval is trying to make the case that, after years of tolerating decline at its luxury brands, the fight to bring Lincoln up to snuff is deadly serious. But if admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery, CEO Alan Mulally may just have kicked off Lincolns rehabilitation with a minor stumble, telling Automotive News [sub]
we didn’t tarnish the brand. We just didn’t invest in it.
You say tomato, Alan, we say tomahto. If neglect won’t “tarnish” a luxury brand, nothing will. But now that the requisite excuses have been made, what is Ford going to do to bring back its lagging luxury brand?
Ford’s product czar Derrick Kuzack gets first crack at that question, explaining
The strategy isn’t just new products, but full differentiation from the Ford brand in not only design but in technology
…and already we’re running into problems. Remember, some of Ford’s best work in recent years has been its ability to brand and market luxury-level technology… for its Ford brand. EcoBoost? Most people think Ford Taurus SHO. SYNC? Again, a brand that’s been well-associated with Ford and slapped onto Lincolns as an afterthought. MyFordTouch? Did you even know there is such thing as MyLincolnTouch? Can you imagine it bringing anything to the table besides a Lincoln badge? You see where this is going.
But let’s set aside the anti-brand-strategy implications of Ford’s democratization of technology and the trouble with putting that genie back in the bottle for one moment. After all, the underlying problem with Lincoln is that its products suffer from the same lack of differentiation as its technology. The solution? Less than overwhelmingly convincing. Kuzack says future Lincolns “will get some of their own powertrains,” and adds a cryptic passage that AN parses thusly:
Kuzak said Ford can tweak existing Ford platforms for Lincoln. For example, he said, consider Ford’s power steering or chassis electronic control. “Imagine adding suspension control to that and what would happen to the platform if you did that on Lincoln only,” he said.
Not inspired yet? Lincoln’s own product development honcho Scott Tobin adds:
Ford’s plans for Lincoln products also include newly designed interiors, more V-6s, and upgraded features such as paddle shifters and all-wheel drive.
And that appears to be just about everything the men in charge of Lincoln’s rehab seem to have in the works. Otherwise, the waterfall grille will “evolve” and there will no be rear-wheel-drive Lincoln. None of which, on face value anyway, sounds sufficient to pull the brand out of the luxury game cellar. Between Mulally’s attempt to minimize the malignancy of Lincoln’s neglect, and plans that seem to boil down to “more of the same, but better” there’s not much here for Lincolns to cling to. Especially when you look at Cadillac’s continued struggles despite a fairly substantive improvement in its products and differentiation. Luckily for Ford, success with its Blue Oval brand seems to have kept the automotive media from asking the really tough questions about Lincoln’s future… even though Ford’s success seems to trade off increasingly with Lincoln’s.
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Lincoln needs to pick a strategy. If they want to focus on the retired crowd, play up nostalgia and a smooth ride. Just be aware that they'll all die, and the people who are young right now will never aspire to own a car that makes it look like they have one foot in the grave. You'll sell out, and when sells drop, you'll have to kill the brand. Probably not a bad idea, really; Lincoln is already too geriatric. They've already lost most of the brand-equity, and it would take a decade of world-class cars before anyone even considers them again. Even the name sounds very staid and old-fashioned. It brings to mind stolid images of President Lincoln. Around the time Ford kills Lincoln is when they should introduce a brand new premium brand. Note I said "premium" and not luxury. Even the plain-Jane cars have pretty much every luxury feature you want now days, so this premium brand should focus on concept-car-level styling, and performance and handling that beats BMW. They could start with the Mustang chassis, but give it IRS and really go through it with a fine-tooth comb until it has that handling feel of an E46 3-series. It should also have a very nice interior, but through use of advanced materials, weigh less and have a lower CG than the Mustang. A 2nd large RWD/AWD platform should be set up for the bigger cars. Maybe a badge-engineered fusion (but really well done, like a Lexus ES) could be the entry-level car. They should continue to focus on light-weight and offer electric versions of all these cars. In summary, here's what Lincoln's replacement needs to offer above Ford 1) Performance and handling 2) WORLD CLASS styling. Not just distinctive. No overstated. World class & timeless (1 & 2 will probably require at least one unique platform)
If I had Mulally's ear, I'd first tell him to lose the baleen whale front end ("waterfall" my butt - that's a whale!). Then I'd tell him to drop the alphabet soup and put names on the models. Third, I'd tell him to find the guy who put all those unlabelled buttons on the IP and fire him (maybe rough him up first). Look at all the best-selling Lincoln front ends since 1950, pick the simplest design and do a modern interpretation, and use that for the whole line. Keep Towncar and Continental, and add maybe a Geneva, or Manhattan, and even bring back Versailles. For IP controls, simplify, simplify, simplify. Lincoln doesn't have to choose between old people who want a pillow ride and younger buyers who want peformance and/or status. With a sport suspension setting, you can build a coddled-in-luxury car that brings in the old money, and still attract younger professionals who want to keep up with the Beemer crowd. The drivetrain has to be class-competitive, but as was pointed out in the Jaguar review, not at the expense of luxury and refinement. Speaking of luxury, both groups want the same high quality materials, solid feeling hardware and that solid thunk of the doors. There's nothing wrong with using Ford platforms if they're good and the sheet metal is different. Remember when Ford made a Continental from a stretched Taurus? That car sold very well, especially among yuppie professionals, because it was loaded with classic luxury styling cues like an understated grille, gentle creases with rounded curves and a limo-look roofline, and an interior and IP that was as far away as they could get from a Taurus. The next gen was mechanically superior, but the all new body dropped the lux cues and sales never recovered. A class-competitive RWD drivetrain is needed, but in lux class, appearance is everything. Elegant, understated luxury will fix what ails Lincoln.