New models: Mercury combats the aging process

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Struggling with its image as a stodgy ride for aging drivers, Mercury's rising up with the most ambitious product assault in the history of the 65-year-old Ford Motor Co. brand.

"We have lost a lot of customers for lack of product," said Darryl Hazel, president of Lincoln Mercury. The marque's five new models in the next 16 months "give us a real meaningful way to initiate a dialogue with them."

Panned for selling premium versions of Ford models that weren't different enough, Mercury has a lot of ground to cover. Its incentives have been higher than the industry average since July 2002 and in July 2004 rose to $5,186 per vehicle vs. an industry average of $2,885, said Michael Chung, an analyst at auto information site Mercury has also suffered from inconsistency, using 12 different ad tags in the past 25 years, including three in the 1990s.

"Here's a brand that's been around for 65 years and nobody knows what it is," said Art Spinella, VP of auto consultancy CNW/Marketing/Research. Of all the shoppers that put Mercury on their shopping list last year, only 14.5% bought one, he said. Among 16-to-24-year olds, 93% of consumers surveyed by CNW placed Lincoln third this year behind General Motors Corp.'s Buick cars and sibling Lincoln's cars.

"We are being evaluated by three models, the Grand Marquis, the Mountaineer and the Sable," said John Fitzpatrick, general marketing manager of Lincoln Mercury, responding to the shopping data. Mercury, he said, knew in 2002 it needed a "bridge strategy" to carry it until 2004, when the new models arrived that could redefine the brand.

Mr. Fitzpatrick said the marketer has consistently portrayed Mercury as "modern design, smartly done," in marketing messages during the past 10 months. Research in the past year revealed owners said Mercury's roots are in style and innovation and they like the way the cars are packaged and look different from other vehicles on the road.

The average age of Mercury owners is in the mid-60s and Tom Grill, marketing manager of Lincoln Mercury, admitted the brand is "not on the radar" of young buyers. It hopes to change that by targeting its 2005 Mariner small sport utility and the Montego sedan at an audience 15 years younger than that its usual buyer. Mercury also announced last week it will sell an entry-level sedan, the Milan, due late in 2005 .

The brand last chased younger buyers with its sporty, two-door Cougar, which arrived in fall 1998. But Mercury discontinued Cougar due to sliding sales in the fickle coupe segment.

balancing act

Mercury's new models will compete in larger segments than Cougar did and are the brand's "best shot" in years at attracting younger consumers, said Doug Scott, a VP at consultant NOP World Automotive. It's a balancing act: The brand's challenge is to retain loyal owners while winning over younger customers, he added.

Mercury will get its new message out with its first major integrated ad blitz since fall 1999, when it introduced "Live Life in Your Own Lane." A teaser commercial breaks Sept. 13 on national cable and broadcast TV networks.

Subsequent ads from WPP Group's Y&R, Dearborn, Mich., will be product-specific. Y&R created a total of 11 TV commercials, although Mr. Fitzpatrick said a whopping 25% of his marketing budget will be spent in digital and consumer events.

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