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Ford (NYSE: F ) has been doing a lot of talking about reviving its slowly selling luxury brand, Lincoln. After selling off a stable of luxury brands that included Jaguar and Volvo, the Blue Oval made it clear that it intended to do something with Lincoln – the one brand (aside from Ford itself) that the company thought worth keeping through its wrenching restructuring and turnaround.
"But what?" investors have been asking. "Why keep Lincoln?" Unlike rival General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) Cadillac brand, which has clawed its way back to the outer fringes of luxury car respectability after years of effort, Lincoln is barely even in the conversation among most well-heeled car shoppers.
Was it really worth saving?
Ford's leaders thought so. On Monday, Ford unveiled some of its vision for what it is now calling the "Lincoln Motor Company." And like many Ford efforts in recent years, it's quite a bit different from what the competition has been doing – and worth a closer look.
What Ford unveiled on Monday is the beginning of a full-blown relaunch of the Lincoln brand. There's a slick 60-second TV ad, with vintage Lincoln models, images of the celebrities who owned them, and even Abraham Lincoln himself (or an actor playing him, at least), emerging from fog.
There's a new print campaign, including an ad that asks: "Does the World Need Another Luxury Car?" There are redesigned websites and catalogs – and come February, there will be a Super Bowl ad, Lincoln's first.
In other words, Ford's serious about this thing. With a slew of new models on the way, Ford is putting serious effort – and serious money – behind Lincoln.
One of those new Lincolns is making its debut today at the (surprise) Lincoln Center in New York, at an event hosted by Ford CEO Alan Mulally. Behind the big new marketing push, this new car is the news that counts.
A new Lincoln -- that isn't (exactly) aimed at the Germans
The Lincoln MKZ is an all-new, mid-sized luxury sedan with swooping styling that is somewhat reminiscent of Audi's recent designs – but unlike Cadillac and its striking new ATS sedan, it's not aimed at the German brands that dominate luxury car sales. It's something different.
It's built on the same mechanical bones as the much-acclaimed new Ford Fusion – but unlike other Lincolns of recent times, it doesn't share any sheet metal with its humbler sibling.
That's important. Ford's recent strategy of adding luxury features to its bread-and-butter vehicles has been a very profitable one for the company, but it threatened to push its mass-market cars into direct competition with its supposed luxury brand. Lincoln's vehicles have needed clearer differentiation from the Blue Oval brand, and the MKZ gets it right.
That's a good thing. Because while the MKZ isn't exactly aimed at Audi or BMW (NASDAQOTH: BAMXF ) , it is aimed squarely at a different luxury heavy-hitter: The ES350, the best-selling car in Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) vaunted Lexus lineup.
Taking on Lexus with American luxury
The German brands – Audi, BMW, and Daimler's (NASDAQOTH: DDAIF ) Mercedes-Benz – and their solid, sporty sedans have long been held up as the gold standard of luxury cars. But Lexus has made significant inroads in their market dominance with a somewhat different take on luxury, one that emphasized quietness and comfort over back road prowess.
That seems to be where Lincoln is aiming. It fits well with Ford's corporate emphasis on greener transportation – the new TV ad touts the MKZ's mileage ratings, not its horsepower or zero-to-sixty times. And it fits well with Ford's corporate expertise: Before joining Ford, new Lincoln chief Jim Farley spent several (wildly successful) years at the helm of – you guessed it – Lexus.
Can Ford pull it off?
Can Ford reinvent Lincoln as a viable modern-day luxury brand? Can it woo discriminating, well-heeled buyers from brands like Lexus and Audi? Perhaps most importantly, can it catch on in China, where luxury cars are the growth market of the moment?
Here's the answer to all of those questions: If the cars are good enough, and the prices are right, buyers will come. We'll know more after reviewers get some time with the new MKZ, but I'll say this much: Given Ford's recent track record, I wouldn't bet against them.
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