'IMAGINE' THAT: MERCURY CLARIFIES ITS MUDDY IMAGE: $24 MIL BRAND CAMPAIGN KEEPS TAGLINE BUT TAKES A NEW DIRECTION

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Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury Division is implementing a new strategy for Mercury that it said will end two decades of trying to define the brand's murky image.

Part of Mercury's problem is that its products are non-distinct, spiffier versions of Ford vehicles with higher price tags. Mercury will get its first "non-shared" vehicle when the new Cougar arrives next spring.

Mercury introduces an edgy, $24 million branding campaign tonight, during ABC's NFL "Monday Night Football" broadcast.

NO CLEAR IDENTITY

James O'Connor, who arrived last year as general manager of Lincoln-Mercury from Ford's export operations, said Mercury engineers and designers didn't understand what the 59-year-old brand stood for.

And if they didn't, he said, there was no way consumers could.

The division and its agency, Y&R Advertising, Detroit, started researching Mercury's new strategy 18 months ago. That effort accelerated six months ago, after the arrival of Jim Rogers as general marketing manager from auto consultancy A.T. Kearney Inc.

"We found through substantial research the Mercury buyer is not everybody," Mr. Rogers said. "Mercury buyers are really individuals. The individuals we spoke to wanted imaginative vehicles."

'IMAGINE' STRATEGY

Mercury didn't set out to keep the brand's 2-year-old tag "Imagine yourself in a Mercury," he added. But the tag has "tremendous equity and does speak to the strategy very well," said Ian Beavis, who joined the division this summer as advertising manager from Saatchi & Saatchi/Pacific, Torrance, Calif., where he headed Toyota Motor Sales USA's account.

Mercury wanted a word and idea it could own, said Mike Belitsos, exec VP-executive creative director at Y&R: "When you think of imagine or imagination, you're going to think of Mercury."

Each of seven new humorous TV spots opens with an unseen viewer watching the fictional "Imagine TV" network. The commercials show spoofs of courtroom dramas, kungfu movies and "Casablanca." One vignette pokes fun at police dramas, showing the driver of a Grand Marquis pulled over by cops who want to take the car for a spin. The film is blurred to protect a "witness" to the scene-a man holding a Jack Russell terrier, the dog Nissan Motor Corp. USA uses in its current campaign.

Mercury sales through August slipped by less than 1% to 304,571 compared to the same period last year. Since the brand's average owner is in his or her late 50s, Mercury is continuing a push it started in 1995 to woo younger buyers.

EDGINESS QUESTIONED

Y&R originally presented three branding proposals to Mercury but recommended the one used in the new campaign. Still, the agency told Mercury executives it doubted the campaign would be approved by higher-ups inside Ford because of its edginess.

"Our 'Imagine TV' advertising campaign is proof that Mercury has resolved its ambiguity and is ready to create its own branch of the Ford Motor Co. family tree," Mr. O'Connor said.

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