Lincoln Softens Sell in Import-Dominated California

The Experience Center doesn’t sell cars. It is a space where potential Lincoln owners can learn about the brand, chat with a dealer via video in a private room or attend a cultural event such as a live sculpting exhibition.

Alysha Webb, Contributor

August 22, 2016

4 Min Read
Experience Center aims to raise Lincolnrsquos West Coast profile
Experience Center aims to raise Lincoln’s West Coast profile.

NEWPORT BEACH, CA – It’s a balmy Southern California evening. A jazz band plays in the background. Well-dressed groups cluster around small tables sipping glasses of prosecco and munching on cheese.

It’s the opening of a new hangout, or at least that’s what Lincoln hopes it has achieved.

In late July, the Ford-owned luxury brand introduced the first Lincoln Experience Center. The aim is to convince luxury-car buyers Lincoln should be on their consideration list. It’s a good first step, though the brand still has hurdles to clear.

“I think what Lincoln is doing over all is a sound and smart strategy,” Ed Kim, vice president-industry analysis at market researcher AutoPacific, tells WardsAuto. “They are a brand that rightly so is trying to differentiate itself from the pack.”

One way Lincoln is doing that is by choosing to launch the Experience Center concept in California, where import luxury brands dominate the market. In contrast, competitors such as Cadillac have aimed for a relatively friendlier region, the East Coast.

Lincoln chose California, specifically Orange County because though the county just south of Los Angeles is the country’s No.3 luxury market, Lincoln is not well known, brand President Kumar Galhotra says.

“Clients here don’t recognize the brand,” he says.

The event, held in the high-end Fashion Island mall in wealthy Newport Beach, was a thoughtful choice. “We wanted to bring the brand to people where they naturally hang out,” Galhotra says.

The Experience Center doesn’t sell cars. It is a space where potential Lincoln owners can learn about the brand, chat with a dealer via video in a private room or attend a cultural event. Its purpose is to convey a feeling for what the Lincoln brand stands for, that it is “warm, human, personable, crafted,” Galhotra says.

Lincoln already has scheduled events that will take place at the Experience Center, selected by an in-house “event curator.”  They include a live sculpting exhibition and an evening with a “local pasta artisan.”

There will be several models on site, but test drives will take place through area dealerships. After someone takes a test drive, their favorable opinion of Lincoln rises 30 percentage points, Galhotra says.

Feedback for the Flagship

At the opening event, the only model was the new ʼ17 Lincoln Continental, the brand’s flagship.

Observational research helped Lincoln get to know potential Continental customers on a visceral level, Galhotra says. Designers then created features based on what they learned, such as an almost silent E-latch door release.

There are no door handles on the new Continental. A touch of a button opens the door, and it automatically closes after the occupant is seated. There is extra buffering for a cushier close. No slamming doors here.

The interior space that usually holds a door handle holds one of the Continental’s 19 speakers. Those kinds of details may help Lincoln occupy a space that Kim says many luxury brands have abandoned in pursuit of a sportier feel – the “uber-comfort isolation chamber” space.

“Lincoln is moving into a luxury space Lexus used to have,” he says, adding the Experience Center can help extend that pampered concept.

While the Experience Center may bring new customers into the fold, Lincoln still has to overcome the stigma of being a domestic brand, especially in California. Imported luxury brands dominate the market here.

The new Continental is very modern, says Paul Van Slyke, who is sipping a glass of red wine at a table in the cordoned-off sidewalk in front of the Experience Center. He is impressed by features such as the intuitiveness of the placement on the console of the start button.

“The small details add up to a lot of design elements that set it apart from what I would expect a Lincoln to be,” he says.  Van Slyke, who owns two Ferraris, a Maserati and a Mercedes S-Class, also is impressed with the Continental’s price, which starts at around $45,000.

“If I drove an American luxury car, I would consider a Lincoln,” he says. But Van Slyke just can’t see himself in such a brand.  “It comes down to snob appeal,” he admits.

Another hurdle Lincoln must clear is its limited portfolio. The brand offers seven models, including three sedans and four utility vehicles. It has holes in its lineup, though, such as a sporty vehicle, says Tom Libby, manager-loyalty solutions and industry analysis at IHS Automotive.

The three luxury-segment leaders in the U.S. – Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW – offer a broad range of model types and powertrain options, he says. “Lincoln is behind.”

Lincoln isn’t standing still. The ʼ17 Continental is due in the fall. A new MKZ fullsize sedan also is on the horizon. And Lincoln plans to open more Experience Centers, though Galhotra won’t say where those will be.

That’s probably the brand’s best bet for getting on buyers’ consideration lists.

Says Auto Pacific’s Kim: “Today’s consumers are a lot more experiential than they were 20 years ago.”


About the Author(s)

Alysha Webb


Based in Los Angeles, Alysha Webb has written about myriad aspects of the automotive industry for more than than two decades, including automotive retail, manufacturing, suppliers, and electric vehicles. She began her automotive journalism career in China and wrote reports for Wards Intelligence on China's electric vehicle future and China's autonomous vehicle future. 

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