Matthew McConaughey and Jim Carrey may have finally figured out how to make Lincoln hip.
Sales of Ford Motor Co.’s lagging luxury line soared 25 percent last month after comedian Carrey spoofed McConaughey’s moody commercials for the new Lincoln MKC sport-utility vehicle on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. The small SUV had its best sales month ever as Carrey imitated McConaughey’s sotto voce musings on life as he rolls down a dark city street. The original ads began airing the previous month.
Lincoln is benefiting from the introduction of its all-new MKC, an entry in the hot small crossover segment, which has met with positive reviews by car critics. In addition to the marketing campaign, the brand has received extra attention through parodies including on the animated show “South Park” and Carrey’s satirical take on SNL. His spoof, viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube.com, caught fire in social media, giving Lincoln the kind of buzz it hasn’t seen since the Kennedy Administration. And that buttresses Ford’s multi-billion investment to try to make Lincoln relevant again, starting with models like the MKC, aimed at young strivers with a $33,995 starting price, the lowest among compact luxury SUVs.
“For a brand like Lincoln, that buzz is helping them quite a bit,” John Krafcik, president of TrueCar.com and a former Ford engineering executive, said in an interview. “Jim Carrey was magnificent in his spoof. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t absolutely loved that.”
In the fake ads, a staple of the show since the ’70s, Carrey slouches behind the wheel of an MKC, rolling thumb and forefinger as McConaughey does in one of his Lincoln ads.
“Sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward,” Carrey says in the parody that suggested the finger roll came after an act of nasal grooming. “And I don’t mean go back and reminisce or chase ghosts. I mean take a big step back. Like go from winning an Oscar to doing a car commercial.”
Ford hasn’t acted defensively about that put-on and others. Rather, it’s embraced the parodies, much like General Motors Co. capitalized on the social-media sensation created last week when a nervous Chevrolet sales manager bungled his presentation of a pickup to World Series Most Valuable Player Madison Bumgarner. GM quickly tweeted the manager’s ad-lib that the Chevy truck had “technology and stuff,” and the automaker has since included the line in its advertising.
“It’s fun to see how the team at Lincoln have decided to lean into that in a similar fashion to how the folks at Chevrolet have leaned into technology and stuff,” Krafcik said. For Lincoln, landing Oscar-winner McConaughey “was impeccable timing. Everything that’s happened since indicates that it was a very, very savvy move.”
Ford still has a long road ahead to turn around Lincoln after sales fell 65 percent through last year from its 1990 peak. Lincoln, for all its progress, is still an afterthought in the U.S. luxury race. Lincoln had its best October in seven years, trailing Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti by only 162 sales. Yet its 8,883 deliveries last month were less than a third of the 30,602 that BMW reported.
The MKC’s nascent success is a small step forward for Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields’s plan to revive Lincoln, best known in recent years for the Town Car, an airport shuttle for business travelers that the company no longer makes. He revealed plans in September to invest $2.5 billion in Lincoln over the next five years to introduce the brand in China and roll out eight new models by 2020. Lincoln debuted the MKZ sedan last year and plans to introduce redesigned versions of its MKX SUV and MKS big sedan next year.
“The MKC comes at a critical time for Lincoln because Ford is trying to build that brand and needed a new product in the right segment,” Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at KBB.com. “If you look at that luxury compact SUV segment, it’s the fastest growing segment in the industry, up 19 percent year-to-date compared with the 5 percent gain for the wider industry.”
MKCs stayed on dealer lots an average of 18 days, John Felice, Ford’s U.S. sales chief, said on a call yesterday with analysts and reporters. Mainstream brands aim for a turn-rate of about 60 days. Luxury brands typically sell more quickly.
“We’re pleased with these results and look forward to seeing what MKC can do over the holiday season, which we all recognize is a very favorable time for luxury automakers,” he said.
McConaughey’s MKC commercials debuted in September and were quickly parodied by talk show hosts Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien. DeGeneres edited herself into the back seat of the MKC, while McConaughey stares down a beefy bull, who he somehow knows is named Cyrus. DeGeneres said she can’t see the longhorn until she starts eating brownies prepared by McConaughey that are apparently laced with marijuana.
‘Dazed’ to ‘Dallas’
The spoof played off McConaughey’s breakout role as a drug-addled stoner in 1993’s “Dazed and Confused.” The actor, who turns 45 today, has undergone a career renaissance -- dubbed a McConaissance -- that Lincoln would covet. After years of appearing in forgettable romantic comedies such as “Failure to Launch,” he sought more substantial roles in recent years and won an Oscar this year for his portrayal of a Texas party boy with AIDS in 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club.”
The association with McConaughey is bringing younger buyers into Lincoln showrooms and onto its website, Felice said.
“People come in here and say, ‘Oh, he’s my favorite actor, he’s just wonderful,’” J.T. Hartman, sales manager at Jacky Jones Lincoln in Gainesville, Georgia, said in an interview. “They talk more about Matt than the car. He is driving them in there.”
Ford is playing to its strengths to boost Lincoln sales initially with SUVs such as the MKC and the Navigator, Krafcik said.
“If you look at where Lincoln has permission to play successfully right away, it makes all the sense in the world that it’s on the utility side,” Krafcik said. “Ford, as a company, has a lot of credibility there.”
With McConaughey, Lincoln is following a well-worn path for consumer companies. Automakers have turned to well-known figures for decades to attract attention or re-focus a brand.
“You’ve got to be very careful when you do things with celebrity endorsements,” Fred Diaz, Nissan’s head of sales and marketing for North America, said in an interview. “If it’s not a genuinely good fit with the brand, consumers will see right through that.”
Sometimes it works. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, put rapper Eminem behind the wheel of its revamped 200 for a memorable Super Bowl ad in 2011. Sales of what had been a lackluster model more than doubled that year.
Other times, it doesn’t work. Ford hired comedian Jimmy Fallon to produce a 2013 Super Bowl ad for Lincoln using Twitter feedback. The spot was widely panned and didn’t generate sales for Lincoln’s then-new MKZ model.
Nissan started an endorsement for its Rogue, with the NBC television show, The Voice, which has helped sales of the small SUV rise 23 percent this year, Diaz said.
“It’s a chicken or egg thing,” Diaz said. “Is it great marketing, great product, or a combination of both? I know if we don’t create awareness of the new Rogue in the marketplace, no one will know. But when consumers go into a dealership, they have to like what they see.”
The MKC is attracting solid reviews. Car and Driver wrote of the MKC: “Lincoln has finally, gently broken free from its reputation for building overpriced, reskinned Fords.”
Ultimately, though, Ford needs to develop a flagship premium sedan for Lincoln that’s priced above $70,000 and casts a halo over the entire brand.
“Maybe the first way through for Lincoln, as they strive to become a world-class brand, is to excel on the utility side,” Krafcik said. “But a premium brand needs a flagship premium sedan. You build the whole brand around that piece.”
Ford’s pace of new Lincolns is too slow, said Kevin Tynan, an auto analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence.
“Ford seems to have only enough wherewithal to focus on one Lincoln thing at a time -- right now it seems it is MKC -- and it will take the place of MKZ and sell well for a while,” Tynan said. “To me, Lincoln needs something that is decisively Lincoln -- MKZ is close-ish. MKC is a step in the wrong direction -- just another expensive Ford that does nothing to establish Lincoln as ... whatever Lincoln is supposed to be.”
It will take many years to determine if Lincoln is even on the right road to becoming a legitimate luxury brand, Krafcik said. It will take even longer for it to rival sales leaders such as Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW, which saw sale rise 11 percent in October, led by a 57 percent increase in deliveries of the X5 SUV. Through September, Munich-based BMW sales have gained 12 percent to 267,193.
While Mercedes-Benz sales slipped 4.9 percent last month to 28,593, the company reported record 10-month U.S. sales of 261,804, led by its new C-Class and a doubling of sales of its flagship S-Class. For the year, Mercedes, a unit of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler AG, has increased sales 6.8 percent.
Lexus sales rose 2.8 percent to 23,355. RX SUV deliveries rose 1 percent to 8,057 and those of the GX jumped 29 percent to 1,936. Through October, Lexus has increased 14 percent to 244,038 sales. Lexus is a unit of Toyota City, Japan-based Toyota.
Sales figures for Mercedes and BMW don’t include Daimler’s cargo vans and Smart cars and BMW’s Mini brand, which aren’t luxury vehicles.
The parodies of McConaughey’s ads don’t bother Mike Donnelly, sales manager at Gwinnett Place Ford Lincoln in Duluth, Georgia. He calls them “spinoffs,” like a TV show that is so successful it generates additional shows.
“Customers bring up the commercials, they think they’re neat and interesting,” Donnelly said. “There’s been a lot of spinoffs, but that gets more people talking about it. Spinoffs aren’t a bad thing when it comes to promoting the brand and getting looks on the cars.”