How do you reinvent your dowdy luxury automobile brand so that it seems “as sexy as Jaguar, as refined as Lexus, sporty enough to convert German loyalists,” James R. Healey writes in USA Today? If you’re Ford Motor Co., you start by setting up Lincoln Motor Co. as a separate entity, then you produce a car that inspires reviewers to conclude that despite a lot of shared components, the first offering is “not-just-Fords-with-big-grilles.”
Healey test-drove three different models of the “refreshingly new” MKZ as Ford … er, Lincoln puts it: a 2-liter, four-cylinder, AWD; a 3.7-liter, V-6, AWD and a gasoline-electric hybrid with a 2-liter, four-cylinder gas engine and electric motor. He concludes that despite some “grumblings and fussing” on his part and “quirky and cumbersome controls,” the MKZ is “high-style, high-class, high-spirited.”
But the changes at Lincoln apparently go well beyond the look, feel and performance of the vehicles.
“To help tempt prospects, Lincoln offers a concierge who'll be like your personal car shopper, arranging a test drive, and finding and setting up delivery of the car you want,” Healey reports. “Buyers on the fence can borrow an MKZ for a couple of days, plus get a free dinner at a high-falutin' restaurant.”
Offering free meals may be an idea picked off by Lincoln marketers who have been observing how high-falutin' shoppers behave in Shanghai's luxury malls, as Bradford Wernle recounts in Automotive News today, looking for customer service ideas to import back to the States.
Brett Wheatley, Ford's vice president of marketing for Asia-Pacific, recently accompanied two female shoppers on a two-day shopping spree at central Shanghai's IFC Mall. They made stops at high-end shops such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Van Cleef & Arpels and Prada.
"Some of the retailers did an excellent job with attention to detail on branding from the moment you approach the entrance to the store, to the attire of the staff, and the way the product is displayed,” Wheatley emails Wernle. “In China, food and beverage service play an important role in the shopping experience."
"In many ways, China will be a listening post for Lincoln in the United States," Jim Farley, global head of Lincoln and Ford’s top marketing executive, tells Wernle. "Soon China will be the largest luxury market in the world."
With production ramping up and some quality issues addressed, the MKZ had its best month in April since its unveiling last year, with “retail sales surging to about 4,000,” The Detroit Bureau’s Paul A. Eisenstein reported last week. Production had slowed as the company closely inspected each completed vehicle for defects.
“The delay short-circuited a costly launch campaign wrapped around a pair of Super Bowl ads and left frustrated dealers apologizing to potential buyers who, in many cases, marched over to competing makers’ dealers,” Eisenstein writes. But that seems to be in the past.
“The MKZ is a great car,” TrueCar.com senior analyst Jesse Toprak tells MLive.com’s Michael Wayland. “It’s not surprising that it did well [last month]. The challenge with Lincoln continues to be a brand challenge. Not the product portfolio.”
After surveying other analysts’ assessments, Wayland writes that “Lincoln’s ‘brand challenge’ could continue to improve if future products truly stick to the ‘DNA’ of the MKZ.”
Meanwhile, even as Lincoln studies high-end Chinese consumers, the schooling goes both ways, as the New York Times Bill Vlasic reports this morning. Dozens of Chinese-owned companies are “putting down roots in Detroit” by investing in companies that sell “everything from seat belts to shock absorbers in retail stores, and hiring experienced engineers and designers in an effort to soak up the talent and expertise of domestic automakers and their suppliers.”
Vlasic suggests that it’s only a matter of time before the Chinese companies start offering actual vehicles in the U.S. but a lot of their growth so far has been purposefully low key. For example, Shanghai Automotive Industries, China’s largest automaker, opened offices last year “without any publicity, which is almost unheard-of in an industry that thrives on media coverage,” Vlasic writes.
“We act, talk and walk like an American company,” says Pan Ni, president of the American unit of Wanxiang Group, which ran into some negative publicity last year when it acquired a majority share in battery maker A123 Systems. “In the end, it’s all about making money.”
How American is that?