For those who think the car-buying experience stinks, Ford Motor Co. is teaching its Lincoln dealers about fine cheeses.
Ford is spending more than $1 billion to try to resurrect the Lincoln brand and knows it needs not just better cars, but a luxury car-buying experience that will attract younger, better-educated and wealthier buyers. So it’s putting dealers through training at the Lincoln Academy, where they raise their consciousness and sharpen their senses with exercises including sampling cheese.
It’s a challenge. When one of the trainers asked how old the dealers’ customers are, several shouted out numbers in the 70s and 80s.
“People who literally live their whole lives to aspire to buy a Lincoln,” responded Doug Fiedler, a Lincoln Academy trainer who consults for the likes of Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Norwegian Cruise Lines. “That’s not a good business model.”
And yet whiffs of concern in Dearborn, Michigan, over the state of Ford’s luxury brand are starting to clear from the air thanks to the MKZ luxury sedan, Lincoln’s first of four new models in four years. MKZ posted sales records in each of the past two months and spent fewer days on dealer lots than BMW’s 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class, according to data from Bloomberg Industries and researcher Edmunds.com.
Ford, the only one of the three Detroit-based automakers to avoid bankruptcy in 2009, has been on a roll, with record North American pretax profit of $8.34 billion last year and a 0.8 percentage point gain in market share so far this year. Still, Lincoln is important to its future because Ford needs a successful high-profit luxury line to complement a range of vehicles in its namesake brand that is the best in a generation.
Ford slipped 0.9 percent to $15.37 at the close in New York. The shares have gained 19 percent this year, outpacing the 13 percent rise in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
‘Change the Client’
The trainers at Ford’s Lincoln Academy are calling their coveted buyers the progressive luxury client. Dealers are being coaxed into catering to this customer by tapping into their own senses of taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.
“This initiative isn’t just going to change our brand, our advertising and our products,” Holly O’Donnell, a trainer, told dealers last month during one of the sessions in Chicago. “This initiative is going to change the client that’s going to walk through our front door.”
Lincoln is moving to shake buyers from their association with the now-defunct Town Car, an airport shuttle for generations of business travelers, to build the sort of cachet belonging to brands like Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz. Critical to that will be promising products like the MKZ and the brand’s next offering, a small utility similar to the MKC Concept shown at the Detroit auto show in January that drew comparisons to the Range Rover Evoque.
In the meantime, Lincoln is taking aim at sales and service staff to make sure luxury buyers want to do business with them. That’s an area where Ford says even leaders like BMW and Mercedes are falling short of consumers’ expectations.
When the researcher Luxury Institute LLC last year asked premium buyers what level of importance they placed on dealership experience on a scale of 1 to 10, the average score was 8.3, according to a survey released in November. At the same time, that sample of wealthy consumers scored their last sales or service experience with their current car or truck at less than 7.7, the study found.
“These clients want no hassles,” Andrew Frick, a Lincoln group marketing manager, says in a training video beamed into Lincoln Academy sessions. “They want quality, reliability and effortless customer service. They’re cynical, but open-minded. And there’s a chance they have never stepped foot in a Lincoln dealership.”
The brand has had trouble drawing buyers at all. Lincoln sales fell to 82,150 cars and utilities last year from a peak of 231,660 in 1990. BMW and Mercedes each delivered more than three vehicles for every one Lincoln sold last year.
At the Lincoln Academy sessions in Chicago last month, Fiedler ticked off attributes of the client base Lincoln is after in addition to a lower age: median income of $143,000 and 66 percent college-educated.
How did this compare to the dealers’ current dwindling client base? Dealers threw out terms like “Social Security,” “pension” and “fixed income” when asked about their current customers. Another estimated that about 10 percent of his customers are college-educated.
“For our brand to grow, we simply need younger, more affluent buyers,” said Frick, the Lincoln marketing manager, who said in another video message that the brand needed to take 60 percent of its buyers from other luxury manufacturers, such as BMW, Mercedes, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus and Volkswagen AG’s Audi.
After running through the demographics and viewing the videos of Frick, dealers in Chicago last month were whisked through sessions to get them in touch with their senses, meeting with a representative for Leader Dogs for the Blind.
Later, a trainer challenged the room to watch a video and count how many passes a basketball team in white jerseys makes as they run around another in black jerseys. Many in the room get the correct answer: 13. Almost nobody, though, noticed that a man moonwalks through the crowd of players in a bear costume in the middle of the video clip.
The idea is that the dealers need to become more sensitive to signals right before their eyes.
And their noses: An Italian chef ushered his staff in and out of the hotel restaurant’s dining room with an aged Irish cheese, candied ginger, Hawaiian lava salt and white and black chocolate mousses. Each was sampled and discussed.
The messages were clear: Maybe Lincoln dealers ought to be hosting wine and cheese tastings and offering premium coffee creamer rather than putting out Dunkin’ Donuts or grilling hot dogs for their customers. Guests’ chairs should be as comfortable as the staff’s, and desks littered with junk or showrooms that smell like service bays could be overlooked by employees, turning off potential buyers.
Dealers are told to be more like Jason Bourne, the Central Intelligence Agency assassin in novels and action movies played by Matt Damon. A clip from “The Bourne Identity” is played in which Damon tells another character in the 2002 film that he can recite the license plate numbers of the six cars outside the diner where they’re sitting, and that their waitress is left-handed.
“The Jason Bourne in the hospitality industry will walk through the lobby and notice that there’s a light bulb out 100 yards away,” said Matt Traub, a former sales and marketing executive at W and Four Seasons hotels.
The new MKZ, sporting a chrome grille inspired by eagle wings and features like push-button shifting and a retractable glass roof, may be the car that lures shoppers into showrooms and gives dealers the first test of their sensory abilities.
MKZ posted record deliveries in April and its best May sales in the model line’s seven-year existence. Each MKZ spent 27 days on average on dealer lots in April and 36 in May, fewer than BMW’s 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class or Lexus’s ES 350.
Lincoln is “on a journey that will take some time,” Jim Farley, executive vice president of Ford global marketing and sales and Lincoln, told reporters on a May 31 conference call. “We’re encouraged by our MKZ sales in May, but we have a long, long road to rebuild this brand.”