AUTOMAKER SHIFTS GEARS ON DOWDY LINCOLNS

Ford creates smell of luxury to draw affluent customers

After years of decline, Ford's Lincoln brand introducing dealers to new type of luxury buyer

8/12/2013
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Customers sit in the cafe area of Hines Park Lincoln in Plymouth, Mich., the result of Ford Motor Co.'s dealer makeovers to appeal to younger, more discerning buyers for its Lincoln line of cars. Ford purged underperforming dealerships and is prodding the rest to make expensive updates.
Customers sit in the cafe area of Hines Park Lincoln in Plymouth, Mich., the result of Ford Motor Co.'s dealer makeovers to appeal to younger, more discerning buyers for its Lincoln line of cars. Ford purged underperforming dealerships and is prodding the rest to make expensive updates.

CHICAGO — How to sell a Lincoln in 2013: Make the dealership smell like luxury. And lay out some wine and cheese.

After decades of selling hulking Town Cars to retirees, Ford Motor Co. wants the Lincoln brand to appeal to younger, more discerning buyers. Lincoln unveiled the sleek MKZ sedan this spring, and six more models will follow. It purged underperforming dealerships and is prodding the rest to make expensive updates.

Now, Lincoln is teaching its dealers how to appeal to the $4 latte crowd.

This summer, Ford brought 60 Lincoln salesmen to a boutique hotel in Chicago to learn about the likes (art museums) and dislikes (stuffy old steakhouses) of the so-called “progressive luxury” buyer. It was the third of five regional training sessions.

Lincoln’s target buyers — hipper, more affluent, better educated, and more female than its current customers — are a mystery to many dealerships, some of which have been selling Lincolns since the 1930s. When a trainer in Chicago asks dealers the average age of their customers, one shouts out, “85.” Their source of income? “Social Security.”

Lincoln was one of the top-selling U.S. luxury brands for decades, but was neglected after 2000 as Ford bought other luxury brands like Jaguar. Luxury buyers flocked to competitors like Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, while Lincoln became a car for airport limo fleets.

Everything changed seven years ago, when Ford narrowly avoided bankruptcy and embarked on a major restructuring. It sold or shuttered its other luxury brands and poured millions of dollars into Lincoln. And while Lincoln makes up just 3 percent of Ford’s U.S. sales, it’s still an important contributor to the bottom line because Ford charges a premium for the brand. The starting price of the Lincoln Navigator SUV, for example, is $17,000 higher than the base price of its Ford counterpart, the Expedition.

But it won’t be easy to win back customers. In the first six months of this year, Mercedes-Benz — the top-selling luxury brand in the United States right now — sold 151,452 vehicles here; Lincoln sold just 38,288.

Ford believes new cars like the MKZ can lure young luxury buyers. With a $40,000 starting price tag, it’s comparable to the Mercedes C-Class but has high-tech features like a touch-screen dashboard, automatic parallel parking, and a panoramic glass roof. Ford’s research shows that young luxury buyers are independent thinkers who are willing to take a look at Lincoln.

“Distinctive service is where these folks live,” says Doug Fiedler, a trainer at the Chicago session.

Ryan Kolb, general manager of Hines Park Lincoln, says the dealership founded by his grandfather was remodeled last year according to Ford’s specifications.
Ryan Kolb, general manager of Hines Park Lincoln, says the dealership founded by his grandfather was remodeled last year according to Ford’s specifications.

Ford has issued specific guidelines for dealers to follow as they renovate their showrooms, right down to the specially developed Lincoln scent — a fresh-smelling blend of Earl Grey tea, jasmine, and orange flowers — that should waft through the dealership.

The dictates have irritated some dealers, who don’t want to spend the money until Lincoln has a full lineup of competitive vehicles.

The company could try to shut down dealerships that don’t agree to the million-dollar renovations. Instead of issuing demands, Ford wants to raise dealers’ awareness to the level of their sophisticated new buyers.

In one room, dealers try to identify a dozen different scents, like pine and lemon. Luxury buyers, they learn, are used to custom scents in hotels and stores and might be put off by a dealership that smells like motor oil.

In another room, dealers sit on chairs of various comfort levels and learn that customers often opt to spend more money when they’re sitting in a more luxurious chair.

A few weeks after the Chicago session, attendee Ryan Kolb greets a longtime customer coming in for service at Hines Park Lincoln in Plymouth, Mich. When the customer mentions he likes Mr. Kolb’s Lincoln polo shirt, Mr. Kolb strolls into the dealership and gets him one.

Mr. Kolb’s dealership, started by his grandfather, has been at this location since 1973, and so have many of his customers.

The dealership was remodeled last year according to Ford’s specifications. There are fresh orchids at the reception desk and fresh cookies in the small cafe. It looks like a luxury hotel, especially compared with the dated Cadillac dealer next door, where gaudy sale signs and stuffed animals dangle from the ceilings.

Mr. Kolb won’t divulge what he spent on the renovations, but says the furniture cost more than his house. That irks some longtime customers, who have told him that he should have offered more discounts instead of redecorating.

“The best thing I hear people say is, ‘It doesn’t feel like a car dealership,’” he says.