Why Lincoln is ready to toss the alphabet soup

Joe Hinrichs: "Another way Lincoln could distinguish itself is to leverage its heritage. So I'll leave it at that."

DETROIT -- Does the Lincoln Continental mark the beginning of the end of the brand’s confusing “MK” naming scheme?

Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co.’s president of the Americas, today gave the strongest hint yet that the company is ready to bring back real words, possibly by reviving iconic names such as the Town Car.

“Without divulging the future,” Hinrichs said, “we’re very excited about the Continental name and the attention it’s gotten.”

Lincoln’s announcement last month that the Continental will replace the MKS next year signaled that the automaker might be rethinking its decision to drop actual names nearly a decade ago. Asked about that at an auto industry breakfast hosted by the Dawda Mann law firm, Hinrichs acknowledged that the MK monikers can be hard for anyone who’s not a Ford executive to keep straight.

“I get it,” Hinrichs said. “I know MKX and C and Z and T. I’ve studied them very well. I know them well, but we also understand the issue. It’s, frankly, where the auto industry -- the premium industry -- has gone, if you look at all the nameplates. But another way Lincoln could distinguish itself is to leverage its heritage. So I’ll leave it at that.”

The alphabetic approach was originally conceived as a nod to Lincoln’s past, with the MK pronounced “Mark,” a reference to the Continental Mark series. (For example, the Lincoln Zephyr, on the market for only one model year, would henceforth be the “Mark Z,” executives proclaimed in 2006, earning a spot on Automotive News’ list of the year’s 10 biggest blunders.)

Alan Mulally, who became CEO shortly after that happened, candidly told reporters he didn’t like the change, but eventually said he came to terms with the new scheme.

Now his successor, MK Fields, is pouring money into Lincoln’s revitalization effort and trying to zig while other luxury brands zag. Fields and then-marketing chief Jim Farley announced internally about 18 months ago that Lincoln’s next full-size sedan would be called the Continental.

That name is a big reason for the buzz surrounding the Continental Concept since its unveiling at the New York auto show. Motor Trend put it on the front of its June issue, with the headline “Continental is back.” Hinrichs proudly said that’s the first time in 15 years that a Lincoln made the magazine’s cover.

Ford also has been thrilled with the recent performance of the one Lincoln that still has a pronounceable name: the Navigator, whose sales are up 84 percent this year. Meanwhile, all of Lincoln’s MK-named vehicles are down 7.2 percent.

In 2006, Lincoln justified the name changes as a way to get people to focus on the brand as a whole rather than individual models. Instead, most people just ignored the brand entirely.

Now that Lincoln might finally be on the comeback trail, executives sound like they’ve realized there’s one thing still missing: vowels.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@autonews.com -- Follow Nick on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/nickbunkley

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