I'm not what you'd call a luxury car buyer. The closest I ever came was coveting a fire-engine red 1959 Cadillac convertible I saw on a used-car lot in Westport around 1971…for $800. I'm glad I haven't been paying to keep gas in that car all these years, but it would have been a wonderful investment.
I have owned not one but three Mercedes-Benz cars, though not in the bloom of their youth. The last thing I'd ever do is walk into a dealership and buy a brand-new luxury car, because they depreciate so quickly. Luxury is, after all, a funny concept. You have to convince people that a few drops of colored water and chemicals in a fancy perfume bottle is worth $100, or that scraps of cotton sewn in an Asian sweatshop are "haute couture."
This was on my mind last week, when I attended the "What's Next for Luxury?" forum with Ford's vice president of marketing and Lincoln's chief designer. In the wake of the company's selloff of Jaguar and Land Rover, Lincoln has been anointed as the depository of all things luxury, but even Ford acknowledges that Lincoln's image is a little fuzzy. And it's not helped by an alphabetically challenged product line — MKT, MKS, MKZ, MKX — that the public is having trouble keeping straight.
Ford is trying to right the ship. It announced that its long-term ad agency, WPP, will abandon its Team Detroit and create a new dedicated Lincoln agency in New York. Lincoln is being rebranded, and the new concept is "mass customization," which is kind of an oxymoron, isn't it?
Personal luxury as a way to re-launch Lincoln is the vision of Jim Farley, Ford's global group vice president of marketing. Farley recently started having his suits made to order, and he likes the posh British word "bespoke," meaning made to the buyer's specs. In Detroit next month, Lincoln will unveil a new personal concept car, priced somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000.
According to Greg Furman, founder and chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council, new money is nervous. "Only 10 percent of the real money is inherited," said Furman. "The rest is working-class kids from humble roots who have reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs." They ate mac and cheese growing up; they have to have "connoisseurship" drilled into them. The bottom line is that if a snooty salesperson turns up his nose when the Beverly Hillbillies walk into the dealership, it's a big loss for the brand. A word to the wise for Lincoln: Get rid of the sound-alike MK names and bring back something iconic: Continental, Premiere, Zephyr, Cosmopolitan. Heck, even Town Car is a pretty good name.