New names, looks redefine Lincoln as Nautilus debuts

Ian Thibodeau

Hollywood — Lincoln Motor Co. thinks it’s figured out where it’s headed. To get there, it will try re-branding itself for the second time in 11 years.

The new Lincoln Nautilus that debuts Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show signals part of that change. Formerly known as the MKX, the refreshed mid-size SUV is the first Lincoln to lose the confusing alphanumeric vehicle names that have become the convention for German makes and other luxury companies.

Following suit with the refreshed MKC small SUV that debuted a week ago, the sleek new Nautilus gets the commanding honeycomb grille that debuted last year with the Continental.

It gives the brand a cohesive design scheme that lends the Lincoln a stronger presence across the lineup. Designers have paired angular, athletic exteriors with spacious interiors outfitted with custom sound systems and languid design elements geared toward a cushy driving experience rather than the taut handling and high performance favored by German luxury carmakers.


Industry analysts say the re-branding could be the end of a struggle for Ford Motor Co.’s high-end brand. Lincoln has changed vehicle names, front-end designs and lineups multiple times since 2000. That’s made it hard for consumers to stay loyal to the brand, and muddied the automaker’s reputation and marketing. But under Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln group vice president and Ford’s chief marketing officer, Lincoln seems to have found a niche market.

“They have a more focused brand strategy. They’re learning about themselves,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with IHS Markit. “They’re learning about how best to get where they want to go. Nautilus helps support all the steps they’ve been taking.”

Another misstep could be fatal. Ford and Lincoln are under scrutiny from new CEO Jim Hackett, who was brought in last spring to change the company. The Lincoln brand can help Ford build a presence on the country’s coasts, where luxury vehicles are king, and in new markets like China.

Still, automotive re-brandings are dizzying, especially when done in quick succession. In re-branding, Lincoln admits the “MK” nameplates failed to generate a buzz. Consumers were not connecting with the names, but Lincoln was able to build a solid base thanks to enhanced customer service options it started offering roughly five years ago.

“It’s reflecting that the old names weren’t really working,” said Brinley. “They’re settled on the path. They’re pretty solid now.”

Galhotra’s is the most comprehensive and cohesive branding plan the company has had in years. He is pushing to marry a Lincoln “experience” to the vehicles by pulling in optional Black Label designs and customer service options; concierge pilot programs that give customers a personal driver, pickup and delivery services; 22-way adjustable seats and other interior perks focused on cushy comfort; and other service options.

Lincoln’s been building its customer service for roughly the last five years. Galhotra said Tuesday that the company is constantly testing pilot programs to figure out what customers will use. Galhotra and others at Lincoln say those customer service options, combined with improved vehicles and a focused design scheme, have helped Lincoln sales grow recently.

The company announced in Hollywood that it would partner with CLEAR, a membership service that will allow Lincoln owners to bypass security lines at roughly 30 airports in the U.S. Anyone who buys a Lincoln in 2018 will get a six-month free subscription. Black Label owners get a year.

In an appeal to those favoring changing ownership models, Lincoln also plans to launch a month-to-month membership service next year that will allow customers to swap out Lincoln vehicles every month.

Despite rebranding and a plethora of flashy customer service options, some analysts insist Lincoln needs more product. The company is bringing all of its models up-to-date with the most recent redesign anchored by a signature metal honeycomb grille, but its six-vehicle lineup leaves it more room for expansion than crosstown rivals and foreign automakers Acura or Lexus.

“There’s much more focus on lifestyle around product rather than product itself,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. “Does that get the job done? You can’t only do that. You have to have compelling product.”

Galhotra has plans there.

“Is there a bit more room to cover core segments? I would think so,” he said. “We’re not going to go into niche derivative products. We’re going to stay very focused on core segments, but we’re going to continue to build the portfolio.”

The new Nautilus will have an updated center console, wireless charging pad and the latest in Ford’s Sync 3 telematic system. It comes with a new suite of driver-assist technology such as lane-centering, adaptive cruise-control and an evasive steer-assist function that uses radar and cameras to avoid rear-end collisions.

The refreshed vehicle, available next summer, also transitions to an all-turbocharged lineup. It comes standard with a 245-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, with an option to upgrade to a 2.7-liter engine that delivers 335 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque.

Lincoln has yet to announce new names for the MKC and the MKZ sedan. Galhotra said the company didn’t announce all three new names at once, because it would have confused people. Those in charge of marketing will have to spend a bit more time acquainting the market with the new names. Nautical-themed names will prevail across the lineup.

“The challenging thing is going to be the new names like the Nautilus,” Galhotra said. “We’re going through the process. It will take resources. It will take some time. But we’re confident that we can get there rather quickly.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau