Last summer, as Ford Motor’s (F) marketing team confronted the daunting challenge of trying to make its fusty old Lincoln luxury line hip again, their New York ad agency came up with what seemed like a dream solution: Film a youngish, A-list actor like Leonardo DiCaprio behind the wheel of the brand’s sleek new MKZ model, but don’t let viewers see his face. The star’s familiar voice would tell what seemed like a personal tale. “You’ve seen me in movies. I’ve met presidents.” At the end of the commercial, though, the actor would walk away without ever being revealed, while the camera would spin to show the car and an announcer intones: “Introducing the Lincoln Motor Company.” Ford staffers loved it.
Jim Farley, Ford’s Lincoln chief, killed the plan for the 60-second spot. “It’s not going to break through,” Farley said, according to his marketing director, Matt VanDyke. “Find me something that’s going to break through.” In late December, Lincoln will air a commercial that opens with the immolation of an old Town Car—the ubiquitous, mundane airport taxi that both defines and dogs the brand. From the flames, phoenix-like, emerges the new MKZ sedan. “The tricky part is getting noticed,” says Farley, who helped Toyota Motor (TM) introduce its Lexus luxury line. “You don’t have much time because you haven’t earned the right to be in people’s minds.”
After decades of decline, the same can be said about Lincoln. Ford’s lagging luxury brand hasn’t been hip since JFK was in the White House, and sales have plummeted 63 percent since they reached their peak in 1990. BMW-loving baby boomers have long rejected Lincoln as Dad’s ride—nearly 35 percent of Lincolns are sold to buyers 65 or older, according to auto researcher Edmunds.com. About 14 percent of Lincoln owners are more than 75 years old; only 2 percent of BMW (BMW:GR) and Audi drivers are that age.
Now Ford is trying to reposition 90-year-old Lincoln as a boutique brand that appeals to Gen Xers not beholden to the German luxury lines. Gone are ads featuring white-haired actor John Slattery, one of the stars of television’s Mad Men. At a press conference at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 3, Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally revealed that comedian Jimmy Fallon has been hired to produce (but not star in) the luxury line’s first-ever Super Bowl spot, using script suggestions from Twitter users. The automaker also debuted a new TV commercial starring an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln—a first for the brand that shares his name—and featuring cameos of classic owners Clark Gable and Dean Martin leaning against the fenders of an MKZ. FDR also makes an appearance.
“They shouldn’t ditch their history, but it’s important that they signal change,” says Leslie Butterfield, global chief strategy officer for consultant Interbrand (OMC). “There needs to be something that says this brand has changed, something’s been added, something’s been modernized, something’s fresh about it.”
Stressing a brand’s advanced age can be off-putting to younger buyers. Audi, Volkswagen’s resurgent luxury line, doesn’t pitch its German heritage. Instead, it focuses on what’s next. “People always ask me, ‘Why don’t you guys talk about your history?’ ” says Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America. “That’s not what drives us. What drives us is: Man, how do we come up with the next solution? What’s the next thing? We’re, like, a restless company.”
Lincoln is being selective about the heritage to which it harks back—the glamour of Gable and the flowing Lincolns of that era as opposed to the land yachts of the ’90s. And yet, VanDyke says they ultimately felt they had to take on that stigma with the burning Town Car commercial. When the MKZ emerges from the flames, an announcer says: “It’s not what you think.” VanDyke admits “that was a white knuckler in terms of presenting it to” Mulally and Ford’s top brass. “But they said, ‘Hey, that’s what people think, and that’s what we should directly challenge.’ ”
Ford’s conflicted view of Lincoln’s past highlights the task of repositioning a brand with a trunkful of baggage. They see value in Lincoln’s history as a presidential limo, but President Kennedy, assassinated in a Lincoln Continental, won’t appear in an ad. They debated whether to cut a scene in the upcoming Abraham Lincoln spot that included an American flag on a presidential limo, because luxury buyers aren’t drawn to American brands. (They left the flag in.) “The world is not waiting for another luxury car,” says Cameron McNaughton, head of Lincoln’s new ad agency HudsonRouge, a unit of global ad giant WPP (WPPGY). “If Lincoln is going to succeed, it needs to be brave.”
Ford’s $1 billion bet to restock the Lincoln lineup with seven new models by 2015 is a gamble. General Motors (GM) spent twice as much to overhaul Cadillac more than a decade ago. Audi spends €2 billion ($2.6 billion) a year on technology and product development, Keogh says. “Ford has got to have reasonable expectations with Lincoln,” says Michelle Krebs, an analyst with Edmunds.com. “The MKZ is a very fine car, but does it really compete with a BMW 3 Series? It’s not even on the same shopping list.”
BMW and Daimler’s (DAI:GR) Mercedes-Benz each outsell Lincoln by more than 3 to 1. Rather than try to dislodge drivers of German vehicles from their cars, VanDyke says Lincoln is seeking “curious” luxury buyers not beholden to brands. Lincoln figures those buyers make up a quarter of the luxury market, though Farley says Ford’s ambition is not to return Lincoln to the top-selling luxury spot in the U.S., a position it last held in 1999. “We’re about personal service. It’s really small, like a small tailor shop,” Farley says. “It’s not huge waiting lounges, Wi-Fi, and cappuccino machines. That wouldn’t be our brand.”