Bark's Bites: When It Comes To #Branding, Cars Still Come First
I still remember it as though it were yesterday. My father, nearly exactly the same age that I am today, pulling up into the driveway of our suburban home in his new company car just slowly enough for everybody in the neighborhood to see.
As a cherubic five year old, I looked down from the window of the bedroom that I shared with my older brother, feeling the same sort of excitement that I normally reserved for things like the very few Christmas mornings that I had experienced thus far. Not because I was necessarily that excited, mind you, but because everybody else in the house was. The buzz was palpable. My dad was bringing home the car that signified that his new position as the president of a brokerage firm, the car that nearly everybody in the early 1980s said was their dream car.
What was the dream car in question? If you were alive in 1983, you already know. It was the Lincoln Town Car, resplendent in the color of a Carolina sky that my ever politically correct mother nicknamed “Polack Blue.” To own a Town Car in the time of Perestroika was to let everybody else know that you were somebody. That you had made it.
Now? The Lincoln Motor Company is trying to bring back some of that panache with their Black Label sub-brand — and they’ve been trying for two-plus years. As a nearly literal lifelong Lincoln fan, I’m unprofessionally rooting for them to get it right. Unfortunately, in the middle of all the that Lincoln is doing surrounding this concept, they seem to have forgotten one thing.
If you have a memory (or hell, a life span) long enough to identify with the pride that my entire family had upon my dad’s arrival with that Town Car, you probably also remember what the world was like during that time. When it came to mainstream luxury cars in the ’80s, there were exactly three brands that mattered: Cadillac, Mercedes, and Lincoln. BMW was still fiddling around with squarish low-powered cars, and Audi was being crucified by the public for that decade’s unintended acceleration scandal. Jaguar was plagued with reliability issues. Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura didn’t exist.
In fact, it could be said that the closest thing to a luxury competitor that Lincoln and Cadillac faced could be found in the same showrooms — Mercury, in the case of Lincoln, and Buick, right down the aisle from Caddy. Choices were few and far between for the aspiring, upwardly mobile professional. I specifically remember a poll being taken at the time that asked what the average American considered to be his dream car, and the responses were split between Ferrari Testarossa and Lincoln Town Car. I kid you not.
Fast forward to 2016, and Lincoln faces a bit of an identity crisis. This isn’t breaking news. In fact, even though I lust after a certified EcoBoost MKS in Java (I think it’s the best used car value on the market today, and I’d almost be surprised if I don’t buy one when the FiST lease is up) the name “Lincoln” just doesn’t carry the same weight that it once did. What I think everybody understands, even morons on the internet who say things like “MKTauruS” and think they’re being insightful, is that Lincoln needs, well … Lincolns.
The Navigator Concept revealed at the New York International Auto Show was a step in the right direction. Yes, it’s gaudy. Yes, those gullwing doors and extended risers are ridiculous. And no, they won’t make it to production. But along with the Continental (yes, I wanted it to have a V8, too), Lincoln is generating some real buzz for the first time in God-knows-how-long.
So I want the Black Label idea to make sense. Really. I like the idea of the “themed” interiors. I love the worry-free service experience it provides. The Black Label showrooms themselves are gorgeous. I was recently a visitor to a Detroit-area Black Label dealer, and the experience that the Black Label customer will receive is easily equivalent or superior to the experience provided by any Lexus store.
Lincoln was kind enough to pick me up from the Javits Center and take me to Fellow Barber, a Black Label partner, for a haircut and a shave from the lovely and talented Alexia. She gave me a wonderful haircut, a better facial hair look, and she even pretended that my French was passable. All Black Label customers in NYC can take advantage of this service through April, as well as custom menu items from upscale restaurants across America. With Black Label, Lincoln has gotten all of the ancillary stuff right, no question.
But there’s one thing missing: cars. You can’t make a brand premium without offering a premium product. The MKZ, MKX, and MKC just aren’t premium cars, no matter how much theming you give them. Even the kind gentleman who picked me up and dropped me back off in an MKX complained that it just felt small and cramped in the driver’s seat, a problem that has plagued the MKS from the get-go. Also, I hate to be this guy — really, I do — but I can’t stop seeing Fusion, Edge, and Escape when I walk into Lincoln showrooms. And the equivalent Fords are just so good on their own that, in some ways, it could be said that the Lincoln brand actually diminishes its own offerings.
So what does Lincoln need to make Black Label more than just a concept or a hashtag? They need real Lexus and BMW competitors. They need some rear-wheel drive. They need a genuinely fucking fast car — I mean, come on, you can make a Lincoln Escape but you can’t make a Lincoln Mustang? We all want one. Just put four doors on the damn thing and call it a day. Maybe you wouldn’t sell a lot of them, but wouldn’t a Black Label four-door Shelby GT350 equivalent, with pimped-out African blackwood (whoops, I didn’t mean to bring up Blackwood, Lincoln) trim and red interior be straight-up baller?
Then you can call it Black Label. Then you can take some big, bad, flat-crank 550-horsepower sedan with rear-wheel drive (and yes, maybe even a V-8), make it premium as hell inside, and build Black Label cars that the world envies. Why not make Black Label a real M or AMG competitor? Make it a legitimate alternative to an E63 or M5. Make it powerful. Make it American. Make it a goddamned Lincoln.
Then, someday, when I become President of TTAC (not gonna happen), I can feel just as proud behind the wheel of my new Lincoln Black Label MKBADAZZ as my dad did bringing that Town Car home over 30 years ago. Come on, Lincoln. You can do it. For me? Please?
Lincoln provided a really good haircut, a style session with LeBron James’ personal stylist, some hair products, and personalized stationery, as well as a trip around Manhattan in a Lincoln MKX.
[Images: © 2016 Bark M. and Nilo Salmasi/The Truth About Cars]
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