Lincoln Goes After Lexus in Next Round of Ads

Company's Research Found Most Conquests Came From Japanese Brand

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Ford's Lincoln Motor Co. luxury auto brand goes directly after rival Lexus in a new comparative ad campaign breaking today.

Marketers such as Samsung have effectively used comparative ads against competitors like Apple. Lincoln and ad agency Hudson Rouge, Detroit will take a similar approach this fall against Toyota's Lexus, one of the best-selling luxury auto brands along with BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

In one of four new TV commercials, viewers see a well-to-do young couple with a clipboard in their hands interviewing job candidates.

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No, they're not interviewing nannies to take care of their designer child. Instead, they're interviewing a Lincoln MKZ luxury hybrid that's parked side-by-side with a Lexus ES hybrid.

"Which of you is the most fuel-efficient luxury hybrid in America?" asks the man.

Lincoln flashes the words, "I am." The Lexus answers: "No comment."

The spot ends with an invitation for consumers to continue the conversation online with Lincoln through the hashtag #LuxuryUncovered."

During consumer research, Lincoln found that the largest number of "conquested" customers (or those who switched from another brand) came from Lexus. So why not go after Lexus with one of its most popular models: the MKZ hybrid.

"We were very careful to present ourselves in a way that puts the fact out there for the consumer to decide," said Dave Rivers, Lincoln's marketing communication manager. "We've done it in a way where we put the consumer in control of asking the questions. The answers speak for themselves,"

Jon Pearce, chief creative officer of WPP's Hudson Rouge, notes the new ads are not heavy-handed for a comparative campaign. Other auto brands such as Audi have effectively used humor to take swipes at other brands.

Lincoln thought it would be cool to have customers asking probing questions to expose what it believes to be more and better features vs. Lexus.

"We ultimately landed on something that felt very Lincoln: very human, very warm but with a wry sensibility to it," said Mr. Pearce.

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The new ads "are a little bit more competitive -- and act more in a challenger brand spirit in taking Lexus head-on," added Andrew Frick, Lincoln Group marketing manager.

Last winter, Lincoln re-launched its struggling luxury brand in a bid to better compete with domestic competitors such as General Motors' Cadillac and foreign luxury competitors like Lexus, BMW, Mercedes and Audi.

So it's not a bad idea for Lincoln to use comparative ad approach, said Tom Libby, senior forecasting analyst for auto consultancy Polk. Especially if Lincoln believes it offers a superior product to Lexus -- but can't get that message through.

"Lincoln can't get through to the customer through the brand -- and Lincoln knows that," said Mr. Libby. "So its using the actual product itself. Still, it's difficult. They know Lexus has a better image and a perceived better value to the consumer."

Lincoln's September sales were down 5% vs. a 4% drop for Lexus, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Over the first nine months of 2013, Lincoln's sales were off 6% vs. a 12% gain for Lexus.

Jaguar and Cadillac led all auto brands, not just luxury brands, with sales gains of 30% and 29% through September. Lincoln executives declined to comment on ad spending for the campaign.

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