Splitting Off Lincoln Could Spark a Genius Brand Remake

Ford's Decision to Create a Separate Company Frees Up All Kinds of Creative Energy

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I was happily surprised when I caught two Ford execs on "Morning Joe" last week announcing that they'd renamed Lincoln "The Lincoln Motor Company" and were planning to debut a new MKZ model (to be followed by a series of new vehicles).

Creating a standalone company in lieu of conducting a standard marketing campaign makes so much sense! Lincoln was originally its own company until Henry Ford bought it in 1922 (it made immensely powerful V12 aircraft engines during WWI). Subsequently, the Lincoln brand name was put on a variety of products, ranging from expensive, customized sedans, to sporty Zephyrs and then a series of Continental models that morphed into those Town Cars that every limo service seems to use today. In 1998 it launched a wildly successful huge slab of metal called the Navigator.

But Lincoln was always just a tag, a brand name literally attached to vehicles as a hood ornament that came from what was effectively a "department" in a larger company. Most of its competitors' brands similarly didn't really stand for much beyond minor cosmetic variations on otherwise standardized platforms. It's why much of the "brand value" in these badges, or marques, evaporated over the years. Consumers learned that there was no "there" there beyond smart advertising, marketing promotions, and signage.

I think Lincoln has a genius plan that will change not only its corporate name and logo, but the entire company:

  • Leaders who are empowered to control all aspects of operations, so the business can take risks and make bold, visionary choices (like designing cars that really look different than the competition). There's probably a whole different set of metrics for success that differentiates it from Ford's other brands. The Street will use them to measure Lincoln's progress.

    Ford's Lincoln has launched a new creative campaign.
    Ford's Lincoln has launched a new creative campaign.

  • Employees who have new performance review and incentive programs aligned with the new company's mandate, and probably are getting better health-care and retirement benefits to encourage them to build long-term value.

  • New rules and relationships with vendors and suppliers, perhaps many of them exclusive to Lincoln so that its vehicles are loaded with proprietary stuff (maybe even a concerted "buy American" program that includes long-term investments in domestic firms).

  • A radical rethinking of how its customers pay for vehicles, perhaps devising things such as "subscription" plans for regular vehicle replacement, or accrual of discounts and benefits with every year of ownership. There could be some plan to make its owners actually co-owners of the company itself, further aligning the interests of buyer and seller.

  • A similarly radical rethinking of its dealer relationships and the sales process overall. The dealers have been incentivized and trained differently, perhaps filling expanded roles in social media as the real members of local communities. Pricing may have been simplified and standardized so dealerships feel more like Apple retail stores. Maybe Lincolns can actually be bought online?

  • Finally, a standalone Lincoln could reinvent service from the ground up, designing easier and most cost-efficient repair steps into its vehicles, and then creating new and different ways to deliver them (more proactive fixes, like the way computer software gets "updated," for instance).

Think how such actions could be the source for amazing marketing content and build a brand image that is firmly rooted in reality. Nowadays all brands, especially premium ones, need to ground their marketing in operational facts that warrant customer trust and loyalty. There's no creative storytelling (or whatever) that's believable without it.

So far, however, Lincoln's brand remake has consisted of nostalgic videos produced by its ad agency, and an inane ad contest crowdsourced on social media that involves comedian Jimmy Fallon and air time on the Super Bowl. I'm surprised they'd use such tired, old tricks, but perhaps the activities were already locked into the calendar.

There's no way Lincoln would deliver nothing more than a make-believe marketing stunt like some of its luxury marque competitors. The idea of a standalone company is too powerful. The real communicating has yet to begin.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy and co-author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.

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