Car Culture: Lincoln quietly challenges luxury rivals

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Like lesser-known candidates jockeying for attention at a crowded presidential debate, second-tier luxury car companies often have a hard time delivering their messages.

This is the case for Acura, Buick, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Volvo and, most recently, Lincoln. The last-named brand survived the purge at Ford during the last recession when the Dearborn automaker shed most of its luxury nameplates. But Lincoln had been on life support for so many years that Ford’s recent efforts to revive the storied marque have met with mixed results.

However, as with relatively underfunded and unfamiliar presidential candidates who occasionally manage to grab the spotlight, sometimes tier two luxury brands break through the clutter to consumers. For Lincoln, the signs of life are evident in certain, fast-improving model lines, innovative marketing efforts and promising future products, notably the widely praised new Continental full-size sedan coming in 2016.

Consumers have been taking notice and sales are growing, albeit from low levels. In 2014 Lincoln sales rose 16 percent, and year-to-date in 2015 they are up 10 percent, better than many rivals.

Behind the scenes Lincoln is investing heavily in China, hoping to replicate the success of Buick. If Lincoln does prosper in China, that will help replenish the coffers at home and lead to new and better models for U.S. customers.

That, at least, is the plan. In the meantime, Lincoln scraps for attention and respect on the home front. Given that going head-to-head with the leading German and Asian luxury brands — Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus — would be a hopeless endeavor, Lincoln’s marketing efforts are focused on finding fresh, nuanced ways of connecting to potential buyers.

“We are a challenger brand, but we are doing a lot to develop the dealer experience in key U.S. markets,” notes Carey White, marketing manager for the 2016 MKX, Lincoln’s new contender in the hot mid-size crossover segment. Competing Japanese luxury brands, Acura and Infiniti are still trying to find their identity, says White, whereas Lincoln has a “very clear vision of where we are going.”

High performance is one bragging point Lincoln is not shooting for. “We are not about 0-60 mph times. We want our cars to be seen as sanctuaries.”

To that end, the MKX focuses on being quiet and refined. So silent is the MKX, in fact, that Lincoln claims it will be quieter even than its arch-rival, the Lexus RX, which is that brand’s most successful model. White says Lexus RX owners do not obsess over their cars like BMW owners do. “We recognize that and also want to focus on the customer experience, appealing to cultural progressives, people who are into high-end hotel, dining and travel experiences.”

What this means in practice is that the MKX sports a number of first class features such as a 360-degree camera system, “custom fit,” massaging front seats and a sophisticated, next generation sound system. Beyond this, the MKX has two so-called Black Label themes, with specific interior leather and wood finishes, plus owner perks that include anytime car washes and access to a curated list of restaurants coast to coast.

Critics of traditional American luxury brands such as Lincoln (and Cadillac for that matter) often point to their aging buyer demographics as evidence that they are doomed to fail. But in Lincoln’s case at least, the trend is reversed. In 2008 the brand’s average buyer was 67; today that number’s down to 58. That’s still a few years shy of the overall luxury car buyer’s average age of 54, but it’s headed in the right direction.

In short, if Lincoln can maintain its focus and sufficient funding from Ford, it looks like a once lustrous brand may stage a surprise comeback.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at