There is increasing sentiment among some Ford employees that it’s too late to save the Lincoln luxury brand, despite recent announcements that four new products would debut over the next four years.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally recently said Lincoln remains an integral part of Ford’s global ambitions. But in 2007, shortly after arriving from Boeing, Mulally expressed a similar sentiment when speaking about the now-defunct Mercury brand.
“Absolutely. It’s doing well,” Mulally said at the time when asked by a reporter about Mercury’s future. “We’ve got a great set of products in Mercury. It’s a very nice complement to the Ford products. And so we have a good lineup in Ford, Lincoln and Mercury.”
Jim Farley, Ford’s top marketer, backed his boss’s assessment of Mercury at the 2008 Chicago auto show, telling reporters the brand’s “role is changing, but we're not going to compromise Mercury.”
Despite that, the plug was unceremoniously pulled on the brand in 2010, with Mark Fields, former president-The Americas, saying Mercury would be shelved in order to “enhance the Lincoln lineup.”
Mercury sales fell to a paltry 93,195 units in 2010, but it still was good enough to outpace Lincoln that year, which made just 85,828 deliveries. Lincoln sold 231,660 units at its peak in 1990.
Last year, Lincoln sales tallied just 82,150, and through February U.S. deliveries stood at 9,074.
Ford reportedly plans to invest $1 billion to bring the new Lincolns to market. But that’s not much when it comes to reinventing a luxury brand. GM reportedly shelled out $3 billion on the Cadillac brand more than a decade ago. And Toyota reportedly spent $1 billion to develop one model, the LS 400 sedan, when it launched its Lexus luxury brand in 1989.
The first of the new products, the Mexico-built ’13 Lincoln MKZ, has stumbled out of the gate, with dealer shipments slowed because cars are being routed first to Ford’s Flat Rock, MI, assembly plant for an extra round of quality checks.
Now, well into first-quarter 2013, units are just beginning to trickle into dealers, while reportedly more than 1,000 MKZs now crowd Flat Rock’s parking lot awaiting unspecified repairs.
Even when the MKZ reaches dealers in volume, there’s no guarantee it will be a success. Some reviewers already are panning the sedan as an underwhelming, gussied-up, rebadged Ford.
That’s the same criticism that dogged Mercury for years before its demise. To be fair, the highly successful Lexus ES 350 also frequently is criticized for being a rebadged Camry, and it sold 49,117 units in the U.S. last year compared with just 28,053 MKZs. But Lincoln does not have anything close to the brand equity or dealer strength of Lexus.
Lincoln is going to have to see a major sales turnaround in the next few months if it is going to quiet the rumor mill.