With production of the new Lincoln MKZ finally approaching “launch levels” after a costly delay in the production of the critical new luxury sedan, parent Ford Motor Co. is studying just how extensive a re-launch will be needed to put the 2013 model back on the radar for potential buyers.
The Lincoln MKZ was supposed to serve as the foundation for the revitalization of the long-struggling luxury brand. But even as the first of the sedans began rolling into showrooms late last year, Ford decided to curb production, worrying that the MKZ could fall victim to the same snags that resulted in quality problems and recalls for other new 2013 models, such as the Ford Fusion sedan and Escape crossover.
The problem, admitted marketing chief Jim Farley, is that the carmaker went ahead with a major nationwide marketing campaign, including several costly Super Bowl spots, even without product in the showroom. That left dealers unable to serve potential buyers – some of whom are still waiting while others likely switched to competing brands.
“We’re studying our options” for what to do next, Farley told TheDetroitBureau.com during an interview. That could include a major re-launch of the Lincoln MKZ, a move that would add up to the tens of millions of dollars. The two spots on the Super Bowl alone reportedly cost Lincoln more than $6 million.
In the first months of production, Ford took every Lincoln MKZ being produced at its Mexican assembly line and had it completely re-inspected at a factory near Detroit to try to discover defects like those that had plagued the launches of the Fusion and Escape. Those models were repeatedly recalled for problems that included faulty fuel lines that could cause a fire.
The back-up inspection program for the 2013 Lincoln MKZ is no longer necessary, Ford has decided, as Farley says production is being “ramped up to launch levels.” There are about 3,000 of the luxury sedans already in transit and production is now reaching about 200 a day.
The lack of product resulted in some of the lowest Lincoln sales in more than a quarter century during January and February. March numbers won’t be much better, but the luxury maker hopes to be coming closer to its target by the end of April, according to Farley.
The real question is whether potential buyers have already forgotten about the new model. Dave Sullivan, lead auto analyst with AutoPacific, Inc., says that the ill-matched production and advertising campaign clearly won’t help Lincoln gain the momentum it desired. By the time the Super Bowl ads ran, he says, “they should have had a showroom full of MKZs.”
The analyst thinks that if Lincoln is going to re-launch the new sedan the campaign should have a broader focus on the overall Lincoln turnaround effort. Indeed, Ford officials have billed the MKZ as just one of four major new product launches they plan by late 2014. And there are a number of additional models in the works beyond that.
“If anything,” stressed Sullivan, “they need to be talking about what’s coming next.” As for the MKZ itself, “The best marketing they can do right now is to get some cars on the road so people can see them.”
During his keynote speech at the New York International Auto Show last week, Ford’s Farley outlined the broader goals of the Lincoln brand, noting that it hopes to gain strength by appealing to the expanding range of luxury buyers – especially Millennials and Hispanics.
Young buyers are increasingly focused on luxury, he noted, and some may make a luxury brand their first choice when they buy their first new car. As for Hispanics, they’re entering the luxury segment at three times the rate of the rest of the U.S. population, according to Farley.
While it may be difficult to gain major traction with existing, older luxury buyers, Lincoln is hoping that it can attract customers who have yet to form clear brand loyalties.