Changes at Lincoln Motor Co. look to be more than skin deep.
The automaker is fresh off a year that saw Lincoln sales grow by 10 percent in the United States and triple in China. There are buzz-worthy commercials with Matthew McConaughey, and a print campaign shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz featuring young musicians, artists and actors lounging in the sleek new Continental sedan. And Lincoln is expected to debut an all-new Navigator this week at the New York Auto Show, bolstering the SUV lineup of Ford’s luxury brand.
That rebranding — and the addition of the Continental late in 2016 — has overall Lincoln sales up 8.7 percent through March. Sedan sales for the luxury brand are up 17 percent at a time when American consumers favor SUVs and trucks.
“The Continental is the first Lincoln in a very long time that doesn’t look like the Ford interior designer was loaned out to the Lincoln team,” said Dave Sullivan, product analyst with AutoPacific. “This is the most welcomed thing I’ve seen from the brand. The Continental has a unique feel and appearance, from the seats to the switches.”
As Lincoln ups it game against high-end luxury automakers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi — while sparring with hometown rival Cadillac — an amplified focus on customer experiences is helping draw buyers to the once-lackluster brand.
“Lincoln is going after a customer that even Lexus has left behind,” said Sullivan. “They have really tried to embrace the overall experience and not just the car.”
The addition of a president to the Lincoln brand in 2014 also signified that Ford was making Lincoln a “key element” in its strategy, which is driven by changing the company’s image, according to industry analysts. That approach has helped the brand recalibrate, said Kumar Galhotra, president of Lincoln.
“Our thought process is extremely consumer-centric,” said Galhotra. “We’re starting with the consumer first, getting a very visceral understanding of what role cars play in their life.”
That required Lincoln to spend time researching not only where it could save its customers time, but how customers physically interact with a vehicle.
Galhotra said the Continental is engineered to “bring the car to life very softly” when the vehicle detects the key fob from roughly 18 feet away. The headlights turn on and running lights illuminate; a glow in the interior creates a warm welcome that doesn’t shock the senses, Galhotra said. Lincoln used customer input to redesign door handles for a more ergonomic design; seats, which have a 30-way adjustable option with presets, can be memorized for multiple drivers.
Continental customers also spurred some tweaks to Lincoln’s customer service, such as complimentary pick-up and delivery for vehicle servicing on all 2017 and future models. Previously, those who purchased Lincoln’s optional Black Label experience package, which adds around $6,000 to the sticker price, had the pick-up service in addition to custom vehicle interiors and membership perks like VIP-style meals and free car washes.
That added brand-wide perk caters to Lincoln customers by focusing on what Lincoln determined what a customer’s most valued asset: time.
“We noticed that the greatest luxury is time,” Galhotra said. With that service, “the customer’s life is not interrupted at all.”
Lincoln has not declared its most recent rebranding a victory, but the the company has seen sales grow at a faster pace than other luxury brands, and customers seem overall more happy with the Lincoln brand, said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with IHS Automotive.
With a 0.7 percent market share through March (up 0.1 point from the same period a year ago), Lincoln has the smallest piece of the market when compared to Mercedes-Benz (2.1 percent market share through the end of March, up 0.1 point); BMW (1.8 percent share, up 0.1 point); Audi (1.1 percent share, up 0.1 point); and Cadillac (0.8 percent share, down 0.1 point).
The new pieces Lincoln has in play could help Lincoln separate itself from other brands, Brinley said. Lincoln might not trump BMW, but she said Lincoln’s customer service could pull in luxury buyers from other automakers.
While Lincoln sales were up, sales of Ford-branded cars were down 4.9 percent through March. Why the discrepancy?
“Part of it is a good product mix,” Brinley said. “... They’re constantly improving, offering these cars and this customer service that is a little bit different.”
While the customer service perks take a while to develop and catch on, Brinley said Lincoln’s SUVs could keep the brand from struggling where sedan-heavy luxury brands, like Cadillac, might suffer as the market moves to favor utility vehicles.
For Carrie Way, executive manager of the Crest Lincoln dealership in Sterling Heights, the customer service carries sales more than any new technology or feature in a Lincoln vehicle.
“The product speaks for itself,” she said. “The customer service we offer here has influenced the decision people make when they change from driving” a different brand.
On the sales side, Way has seen a culture change. She makes an effort to sell Lincoln’s service in addition to the vehicle.
“Clients have done a lot of research already,” she said. “They’re choosing who they want to do business with ... we’re on show.”
The company is also buoyed by a growing demand for luxury vehicles in China, which spurred Lincoln to plan an all-new SUV exclusive to China by the end of 2019.
With the release of the new Lincoln Navigator SUV on the horizon, Galhotra said Lincoln focused on meeting customer needs with a luxury experience.
“We’ve got really excellent coverage,” said Galhotra. “We’re very, very focused on the experience... the object still has to be beautiful, but it has to offer an emotional and a functional experience that makes you feel good.”