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."