How Lincoln Is Launching in China (Spoiler: No Sign of Matthew McConaughey)

To Stand Out in Crowded Market, Lincoln Goes Highbrow and Focuses on Personalized Dealership Experience

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In the U.S., everybody's talking about those much-parodied commercials for Lincoln starring Matthew McConaughey, his Texan drawl and his deep thoughts. ("Sometimes ya gotta go back to actually move forward.")

Across the globe in China, the brand is channeling a different vibe for its entry into a market where Lincoln still has to introduce itself to consumers, and competition in the luxury car sector is already fierce.

As it prepares for the first three dealership grand openings next week, Lincoln's ads have a highbrow feel, invoking both its century-long history and Chinese traditions. It's also creating a new dealership experience with personalized service inspired by boutique hotels and luxury shops.

"You tend to get treated better buying a $5,000 purse than you do buying a $75,000 car -- that is a big hole that Lincoln saw, in being able to provide a service that Chinese luxury car owners until now haven't really gotten," said Doug James, EVP-executive creative director of Blue Hive in Asia Pacific, which oversees Ford Motor Co.'s ad work in the region. (Lincoln Motor Co. is a division of Ford).

A TV commercial by Blue Hive (above) sums up the brand's history and the special treatment customers get in showrooms, like getting doors opened for them and being served tea. There's no emphasis on its being an American brand. That's in contrast to Cadillac, which uses Brad Pitt in China and has run campaigns about Route 66.

To draw potential Lincoln buyers in to roadshow events before the launch, OgilvyOne did geo-targeted, arty online films. One is set in the ancient city of Hangzhou and features Chinese choreographer Huang Dou Dou dancing in water, wandering amid blossoms and musing on craftsmanship and Chinese traditions. (Scroll down to watch.) Others feature pianist Li Quan.

"Learning from what other brands have done, I think it's important for any brand as they enter the market to show they have some understanding, some empathy, with the audience here, and that they are going to take the time to absorb and understand the culture they are entering," said Darren Crawforth, executive creative director at OgilvyOne Shanghai.

Mr. McConaughey is nowhere in sight in the China ads. Many consumers here simply don't know who he is.


While Lincoln is apparently using Mr. McConaughey to cast itself as younger and edgier in the U.S., it's also setting up a big challenge in China, where the luxury car market is dominated by German brands Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

On Nov. 6, three Lincoln dealerships in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou have their grand opening. Eight dealerships will be open by the year's end, and by 2016 the goal is an independent network of 60 dealers in 50 Chinese cities. Lincoln will sell the MKZ sedan and the MKC compact crossover in China, where local car buyers have many, many choices.

While Lincoln is importing its models to China, there are 300 to 350 car models already being produced in China by local and foreign brands, said Jochen Siebert, managing director of China-specialized JSC Automotive Consulting Co. Another disadvantage is that Lincoln isn't coming from a position of strength in its home market, he said. (Lincoln ranked eighth in the U.S. market among luxury car brands last year.)

China "is not a white space for luxury, all the premium guys are here, they have all focused on this market -- and this is probably the toughest market," he said. "It might be easier for Lincoln to be successful in Europe at this point."


Lincoln, meanwhile, sees potential in China's "emerging youthful luxury buyer."

"Lincoln is an important part of our company's success, and Lincoln's success in China is key to Lincoln's reinvention as a globally relevant luxury brand," Lincoln China President Robert Parker wrote in an email, noting that the China luxury segment is forecast to surpass that of the U.S. by next year.

Lincoln believes its personalized service will make it stand out, Mr. Parker said. And he cited a study showing that though "many affluent consumers in China are still motivated by a primary desire to display their wealth noticeably, a select group of consumers are evolving toward purchasing luxury for the personal experience rather than as an outward signal to others."

Lincoln employees in China are getting training from people with experience working in luxury hotels. Other touches include a personalization studio where they'll be able to choose their new car's features, and loaner vehicles for people whose cars are being serviced. And they'll be served tea.

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