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Ford To Try Bringing Luxury Back To Lincoln

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. November was a banner month for car sales, but Ford's luxury brand Lincoln continued to struggle. So after years of underperforming, Ford is shaking things up. Today, it announced a much-anticipated name change to Lincoln Motor Company. That was the brand's name when Ford acquired it back in 1922. And as Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, the Lincoln name isn't the only thing getting a makeover.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Lincoln is on the ropes. Just 20 years ago, it was the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. Now, it's eighth. So you could say Ford doesn't have much choice but to reinvent this aging brand with its aging customers. The company plans an ad campaign just for the name change.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is about moving forward than looking back, and 90 years of doing what others are not.

SAMILTON: And for the first time, Lincoln will advertise in the Super Bowl. Jim Farley heads Lincoln Motor Company. Farley says even though the U.S. luxury market is crowded with fierce competitors like Cadillac and Lexus, there's room for something different.

JIM FARLEY: Our research shows there's about a quarter of the people who buy luxury cars, they just can't find the right brand for them.

SAMILTON: So, says Ford, we'll make that brand. The company's new car, the MKZ, has some unique features like a panoramic glass roof, and the hybrid version will cost the same as the non-hybrid version, but Ford is not just betting on the product. They're trying something new in customer service: one person assigned to the customer, helping them from thinking about it to buying and after. As to how Lincoln fell so far, Ford CEO Alan Mulally acknowledges along the way there was some triage, first, fix Ford, then Lincoln, but he says the brand wasn't as neglected as some people think.

ALAN MULALLY: You can't build your reputation by telling people what you're going to do, so the reason it's been relatively quiet is we delivered our full family of Ford vehicles, but at the same time, we've been also working on the new Lincoln vehicles.

SAMILTON: After the MKZ will come a new crossover and another vehicle perhaps by late next year, and those cars had better be good, says Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive.

AARON BRAGMAN: The product really is king, and the product is what needs to change and be transformed in order for people to really start taking Lincoln seriously.

SAMILTON: Now, Lincoln's reinvention isn't just for the U.S. There's the rest of the world, aka China. Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific says Lincoln is fairly well-known in the world's biggest car market.

DAVE SULLIVAN: They might have seen it in movies. It's always been a stretch limousine, presidents have ridden in it, so it's still a very important brand around the world.

SAMILTON: Ford has a lot riding on the changes. A strong luxury brand lifts the whole company and its profits, and dealers are hoping it works. Ford required many of them to make upgrades on faith or lose their franchises. For now, potential customers will have only the new ads on which to base a judgment about Lincoln Motor Company. The first ad will feature the man the company was named for: Abraham Lincoln. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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