Lincoln may be on a roll, but you'd never know it in Southern California. The brand commanded an abysmal 0.8 percent of the car and light-truck market in the five-county metro Los Angeles region in 1997, and only about 1 percent in 1998.
The classic Detroit response would be, 'So what?' But Lincoln Mercury moved itself to the West Coast last year - and hauled most of Young & Rubicam Detroit with it - specifically to deal with the greater underlying problem head-on. The assumption: If you can learn to sell in a market where your brand is irrelevant, you'll end up with stronger sales nationwide.
'There's the Detroit view of the world, and then there's the rest of North America,' observes Mark Turner, Y&R's Lincoln brand team leader. 'We now have the rest of North America's view on the world.'
Y&R opened its Irvine, Calif., office while knee-deep in putting the advertising legs on a massive marketing plan to make the Lincoln brand more contemporary and thus appeal to younger buyers. The Lincoln Mercury account represents about $500 million in annual billings, including dealer association ads.
Lincoln restyled the Continental and launched a redesigned Town Car last year. Y&R's ad campaign for the Continental pitched its driving attributes, the first performance ads for any Lincoln. Then the agency turned its attention to the Town Car and embraced it as a big, comfortable, smooth riding, contemporarily styled American luxury sedan. 'Enough of this less-is-more nonsense,' blared one print ad.
The first opportunity Y&R had to create relevance for Lincoln among a younger audience came before it moved to California, when the Navigator sport-utility went on sale in July 1997.
John Hirschboeck, president of Y&R's Irvine office, believes that import car owners give themselves permission to buy a domestic sport-utility. So the agency's pitch was not a plea to import owners to buy the Navigator. Rather, Navigator ads simply state that it is the most luxurious way to travel anywhere. The 'anywhere' refers to the Navigator's off-road capability.
The straightforward advertising campaign worked, propelling Lincoln into a virtual tie with Cadillac as the top-selling luxury marque in 1998. The median age of Navigator buyers is 48, compared with 63 for Lincoln's car buyers. And two-thirds of Navigator owners are new to the Lincoln brand.
A blast of icy reality
But if anyone at Y&R thought repositioning Lincoln would be a snap, the relocation of some of its staff to sunny metro Los Angeles was like being hit in the face by a blast of arctic air. 'That's SUV country,' Hirschboeck says as he gazes through a conference room window at the red foothills of the Santa Ana mountains, where he now lives. Some of his Irvine neighbors do drive Navigators. But it is tough to find a Lincoln car in the driveways that dot these foothills. 'Our penetration here is abysmal,' he sighs.
The same can be said for Y&R's Irvine staff, which now numbers about 110. None of the 55 Californians, hired after the relocation, drives a Lincoln. Most of them have no automotive advertising experience. And the newcomers freely challenge all of Y&R's 'Detroit' assumptions.
One result is a more realistic mind-set for Y&R's Detroit cadre as they attempt to extend the Navigator's momentum to the Lincoln LS sedans this spring. 'There's so much hard selling that needs to occur between (national TV ads) and writing a check,' Hirschboeck concedes. 'Nobody here is waiting for the LS.'
Y&R will position the new sport sedan as a comfortable luxury car with performance attributes comparable to BMW's 5 series. As such, it should interest Navigator owners as a complement to their fleets. The LS campaign won't abandon Lincoln's roots. But it will aim at younger buyers with a vertically integrated program in which Y&R produces everything from national TV spots and regional dealer ads to the product brochures on the showroom floor.
Crank up the cable
Y&R will use network TV to build awareness of new Lincoln models such as the LS. The focus of its advertising effort lies elsewhere, however. 'We've made a wholesale shift to cable,' says Dave Wurfel, media director on Y&R's Lincoln Mercury account. Each Lincoln model now has a very defined target buyer, and there are cable channels - Discovery, History, Weather - that serve their particular interests. 'Our folks don't watch television in the mode of least-objectionable program,' Wurfel says.
Beginning with the 1999 model year, Y&R began targeting Lincoln buyers with slickly produced but less expensive cable TV spots. The agency also has walked away from general interest magazines. 'We still use Time and Newsweek to some degree,' says Wurfel, but Y&R is starting to advertise in such periodicals as Cigar Aficionado and Cooking Light.