BRADFORD WERNLE

Must Lincoln be global? Perhaps China is enough

Bradford Wernle covers Ford Motor Co. for Automotive News.Bradford Wernle covers Ford Motor Co. for Automotive News.
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Does Lincoln need to be a global luxury brand to survive?

The answer is a strong “maybe,” tilting toward “yes,” though nobody at Ford Motor Co. will go out on a limb and say exactly what the long-term global plan is for the brand, which is undergoing its latest attempt at rejuvenation.

Mark Fields and Jim Farley, two Ford executives who know quite a bit about developing luxury car brands, gave roughly the same answer to the question Monday night.

Fields used to be head of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group of luxury brands. He took his current job as president of the Americas in 2005. Farley headed Toyota’s Lexus Division before moving to Ford in 2007.

These days everybody at Lincoln is understandably wary of overpromising. Baby steps are the order of the day.

‘U.S. first’

Here’s how Farley answered the global question Monday evening at a party to unveil the 2013 Lincoln MKZ sedan prior to the New York auto show: “We have to execute in the U.S. first. Is there a possibility of a well executed Lincoln brand around the world? Absolutely yes. Any brand nowadays has to think globally.”

Fields was a little more oblique.

“Most global OEMs have a global luxury brand,” he said. Ford’s One Ford strategy of communizing global powertrains “gives us the opportunity to have unique powertrains and technology for Lincoln,” he said.

From his years running Ford’s PAG brands in Europe, Fields also knows the global luxury game has changed in the last 10 years. Formerly, it was the accepted wisdom that global luxury wannabes like Cadillac and Lexus thought they had to prove themselves in Europe by going up against the big boys -- BMW and Mercedes-Benz -- on their home turf. It was a game they couldn’t win.

New luxury calculus

When I was covering the European industry at Automotive News Europe in London, British automotive journalists, those masters of withering scorn, delighted in pillorying Cadillac’s repeated failures to gain a foothold. After all, Cadillacs were geared to American tastes and sold in infinitesimal numbers in Europe.

But the rapid rise of the Chinese market has changed the calculus of the global luxury game, giving new life to aspiring members of the luxury club, such as Buick. Because of China’s vast promise and huge (and growing) ranks of millionaires, a brand like Lincoln no longer has to endure the jibes of snooty Europeans.

Why bother, when you can skip the grief and head straight to the world’s hottest luxury market?

When I ran this logic by Fields Monday evening, he beamed broadly -- one of those “I’m not going to go there” smiles -- and said: “Very good question.” He wished me a pleasant evening without offering further comment.

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.

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