Can Lincoln Be Cool Again?

Jun 15, 2012
Originally published on June 15, 2012 10:56 am

In the car business, Lincoln once stood as the pinnacle of luxury. Frank Sinatra drove a Lincoln. So did the Shah of Iran. In the U.S., the presidential limo was a Lincoln.

The brand peaked with the 1961 Lincoln Continental, a beautiful, innovative car that stood for style, individuality and sophistication.

But after the '60s, Lincoln started on a long, slow decline that mirrored the slide of the American auto industry.

Lincoln is owned by Ford, which has spent the past several years turning around its core brand. Now, the company's executives are taking on the daunting task of revitalizing Lincoln.

Bringing back Lincoln is essential for Ford, not least because luxury brands are huge profit centers for car companies. They also lead to innovations that eventually make their way to cheaper cars. Anti-lock brakes, fuel injection and GPS all started in luxury brands.

Jim Farley is the executive at Ford tasked with revitalizing Lincoln. Farley studied luxury brands that made a resurgence, such as Burberry, Gucci and Audi. Farley says he learned that "we have innovated literally every piece of this — the car, the brand, what people think of when they think of Lincoln."

Farley is following a blueprint laid down by others. He hired a new ad agency. He's redesigning Lincoln dealerships. He poached Max Wolff, a top designer, from Cadillac. He has even physically separated Lincoln from Ford — for the first time in more than a decade, Lincoln has its own design studio. Last summer the company killed off the Lincoln Town Car after more than 30 years.

Most importantly, Lincoln is completely redesigning its lineup, starting with the MKZ. It has a huge retractable roof, along the lines of a hard-top convertible. And it looks very different from most cars on the road now.

The new MKZ will hit the market this fall. It will be the first big test of whether Lincoln can get back its cool.

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In the car business, the way to make big money is to go big. Most of the profits come from big trucks, SUVs and luxury cars. So now executives at Ford are taking on a daunting task in that company's financial turnaround - reviving the Lincoln car brand that was once the pinnacle of luxury. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: One of the ways to find out what the hottest cars are is turn on your radio.




GLINTON: Stars of today sing and rap about Lexus, Benz, and BMWs. That hasn't always been the case. Here's Frank Sinatra in 1962.


GLINTON: That was when Lincoln stood for individuality, style, and sophistication. Now for most people Lincoln is the Town Car, the staple of retirement communities and airport limo stands.

DAVID CHAMPION: Unfortunately Lincoln has fallen so far down the pecking order when you're looking at luxury cars.

GLINTON: David Champion is with Consumer Reports.

CHAMPION: And yet it used to be the pinnacle, and you know, to allow a brand like that to diminish I think is sacrilegious.

GLINTON: Lincoln followed the path of many Detroit brands. It didn't compete when the German brands BMW and Mercedes hit American shores. And it fell further when the Japanese brands like Lexus came along. Executives at Ford are trying to change all that. The question is how. Turns out there is a blueprint for reviving a luxury brand.

SCOTT KEOUGH: There was us and there was them at that time. And if you look at who them was, there was Lexus, there was BMW, and Mercedes.

GLINTON: Scott Keough is head of marketing at Audi. Keough says the company revived itself by separating its look and design from its parent company Volkswagen. It made cool high tech new cars and it created an edgy ad campaign directed at Generation X and Y.

KEOUGH: We made an enemy, which I think you need to do to have an effective position. And who is your enemy? And our enemy is staid, archaic, old-school luxury - fur coats, brass, marble, old country clubs, dinosaurs. That's our enemy.

GLINTON: They made and enemy but it worked. Audi is now the number two luxury brand, globally, and it has the youngest average buyer. The reason all of this is important for car companies and the economy is money. To give you an example, 10 percent of Volkswagen's sales are from Audi, but they make up more than 50 percent of the company's profits.

And extra profits help a company support innovation, hire workers, build plants especially in their home country. No global automaker, especially Ford, can leave those kinds of potential profits unclaimed.

JIM FARLEY: This is the most exciting thing you can do in our industry.

GLINTON: Jim Farley is the guy at Ford who's been tapped to turn things around for Lincoln. He's learned lessons from the brands like Gucci and Burberry that fell by the wayside and made a resurgence.

FARLEY: So for us, we have to innovate literally every piece of this. The car, the brand, they way people think when they think of Lincoln. Is it an old person? Is it a town car? Or is it something new? What is it, that newness, come from? What is it? And then, of course, the experience.

GLINTON: Farley is following the blueprint Audi laid out. He's hired a new ad agency and a hot young designer. Last summer the company killed off the Lincoln town car, but most importantly they are completely redesigning their lineup, starting with the MKZ which comes out in the fall. Lincoln's Meghan Gillam showed me a pre-production version.

MEGHAN GILLAM: And if you come around the back, you'll see a very athletic stance from the back as well. And it has the full length leaping tail ends that go across Lincoln, which is also Lincoln's signature.

GLINTON: The new Lincoln looks very different from most cars on the road now. It has a huge retractable roof which makes it close to hard top convertible. And Lincoln executives like Gillam are especially careful not to compare the new cars to Ford. What would be the equivalent size, in another vehicle? This is like the size of, say, a Taurus?

GILLAM: It's the size of a Lexus ES, which is a very close competitor of ours.

GLINTON: But could you imagine referring to the Ford equivalent of this?

GILLAM: Oh, it's completely different from a Ford. It shares underpinnings and that's where the similarities stop. Very few shared parts. The exterior is completely different. Not even so much as one piece of glass is shared.

GLINTON: Most people in the car business says it can take up to a decade for Lincoln to make a true turnaround. Now, that would be a real sign the American car industry is back. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BUT THE BEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.