Lincoln was sputtering toward a low point in mid-2011 when General Motors CEO Dan Akerson snidely suggested someone should "sprinkle holy water" on the moribund brand.
The luxury marque whose products once starred in Hollywood movies and ferried U.S. presidents was churning out bland, rebadged Fords without a real design direction. Ford Motor Co.'s then-CEO, Alan Mulally, reportedly considered killing Lincoln as sales bottomed out at 81,694 in 2013.
"Those were some pretty dark times," Chris Poulos, general manager of West Point Lincoln in Houston, said in an interview. "We didn't know how it would all turn out."
But instead of taking Akerson's advice and planning for a funeral, the brand's executives were quietly crafting a plan that would eventually lead Lincoln back to relevance.
"Bulletin board material is always helpful, and [Akerson] certainly provided good bulletin board material," Robert Parker, Lincoln's director of marketing, sales and service, said of the GM CEO's 2011 quip. "But in our industry and others, there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than at the surface. At that time, there was a lot of work being done."
The goal was to overhaul the brand's lineup with redesigned vehicles in hot segments and differentiate it through a unique set of customer experiences. Executives coined a term — "quiet luxury" — to encapsulate the vision and be a reference point for everything it did from the design studio to the dealer showroom. A 2014 commitment to invest $2.5 billion in Lincoln through the end of the decade gave the marketing and engineering teams much-needed resources.
Along the way, it struck gold with a quirky ad campaign starring Matthew McConaughey, and launched a better-late-than-never business in China that officials expect will eventually overtake its U.S. operations in volume.
The results have been impressive: four consecutive years of global sales gains that have it on track to reach 300,000 sales by the end of the decade. Ford Motor CFO Bob Shanks, speaking to reporters ahead of the automaker's first-quarter earnings last month, reiterated that the brand was safe — a meaningful affirmation, considering Lincoln's dance with death a half-decade earlier.
"We were kind of a rudderless ship for a while," Poulos said. "But now, our senior leadership is in lockstep. We're a growing brand."
'Smell their breath'
The return from the brink started with getting to know customers.
"The conversation I remember the most is Jim Farley telling me that you have to get close enough to the customer to smell their breath," Parker said. "He was saying that figuratively, but it crystallized the challenge that was ahead of us. We had to understand what the customers think and what they want."
To do that, Lincoln got intimate with its would-be buyers.
After it would bring in a focus group to view a new ad or product, it would ask members of the group if they would agree to follow-up interviews in their homes.
"Find out whether they drink 2 percent milk or almond milk," Parker said. "Potato chips or kale chips. Do they have an Alexa or a Google Home? How are they living? We even get down to their closets."
The home tours gave Lincoln valuable information to craft certain unique experiences, such as pickup and delivery, chauffeur services or at-home test drives. It also showed them where to reach potential buyers with ads.
"That really shows you where their passion points lie," Parker said. "If I know that it's fitness or eating right, that gives me a better ability to spend my marketing dollars to reach you, as opposed to showing an ad on 'Monday Night Football' or '60 Minutes' because the numbers are there. I can go specifically to a channel and find you."
As an extension of the marketing team's home visits, Lincoln instituted an "ambassador program" at dealerships to help employees develop better relationships with customers.
"We wanted someone in the dealership to wake up every day thinking about and studying those customers," Parker said. "They had to be developing relationships with them."
Lincoln asked its dealers to choose a seasoned employee and brought those employees to Dearborn, Mich., for tours of the Henry Ford museum to learn about the company's history. They then went back to their showrooms to share that expertise with would-be buyers and other dealership employees.
"It really opens our people's eyes at the dealership level," Poulos said. "They've partaken of the Kool-Aid and will say, 'Guys, this is where we need to be.' It's absolutely helped."
Much of what Lincoln learned about its dealership experience and customer interactions started with its 2015 launch in China.
The company lagged the competition in entering the world's largest car market, and used that latecomer status to think about the business in a different way.
That started with hiring Eight Inc.,the firm that designed the original Apple stores, to craft warm, welcoming dealerships including tea rooms, waterfall displays and a heritage wall that showcased the brand's history.
Designers insisted on a small number of vehicles in the showroom, and placed those vehicles on pedestals with special lighting.
When customers walked in, the dealers were told to pamper them. They'd start with a walk through the heritage display, then a sit-down in the tea room with offers of food and drink.
The goal was to focus on the experience before they focused on the sale.
"It's like teaching a pitcher to throw left-handed after they've thrown right-handed their whole life," Parker said. "Dealerships are used to a certain way. It was about getting the customer settled and comfortable. It has to be a courtship."
As Lincoln was refining its customer experience, it also overhauled its product lineup. It started with the introduction of a redesigned MKZ sedan for the 2013 model year, followed by the MKC crossover for the 2015 model year. Those were the first two products, Parker said, because they fell in segments popular with first-time luxury customers.
And Lincoln was desperate for fresh blood after years of being associated with older buyers.
The MKC launch and subsequent ad campaign was also the first to feature McConaughey and his odd, philosophical musings. The spots were lampooned by late-night comics, but had the desired effect: They got people — especially young people — talking about the brand.
Part of Lincoln's product overhaul included undoing recent missteps. Executives chose to give each product a new mesh grille, abandoning the statelier split-wing design that never caught on with customers.
They also chose to redesign the Navigator full-size SUV after years of letting crosstown rival Cadillac dominate the profit-rich segment. And last year, Lincoln announced plans to end the confusing MK naming scheme, starting with the renaming of the MKX as the Nautilus for the 2019 model year.
Each decision was centered around Lincoln's goal of providing "quiet luxury" and catering to its customers.
"It's a long journey, and they've really just begun it," Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Autotrader, said in an interview. "I don't know if it's ever going to be a major player, but certainly it can add some sales and profit margin. I think it can have some success."
Parker said he has likened that journey to an ultramarathon.
"Turning a brand into something meaningful takes time, and people had to get their head around the idea that we have to keep going," he said. "Even though you've gotten past 26.2, you have more of these to run. Put on a new pair of shoes and keep going."
By Michael Martinez