Ford’s Lincoln Sales Sputter Even After Super Bowl Commercials

Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln brand, which aired two ads during the Super Bowl in February, posted a 29 percent U.S. sales slide for the month as dealers continued to run short of the MKZ sedan featured in the commercials.

Lincoln sold just 945 MKZs, down 62 percent from a year earlier, as the luxury brand yesterday reported that total monthly sales fell to 4,883. That was the second-fewest in almost 32 years, according to researcher Ward’s Auto. Lincoln’s lineup was outsold by all but four Ford-brand models.

The rollout of the revamped MKZ, which Ford expects to lead Lincoln’s revival, has been hamstrung by the Mexican-built cars requiring rigorous quality inspections at a Michigan plant, the company has said. The MKZ, with an expansive chrome grille inspired by an eagle’s wings, is the first of four new models Lincoln has coming over four years as Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford spends $1 billion to turn the brand around.

“These sales numbers are disturbing, especially since they’ve been relaunching the brand,” said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive consultant with Rebel Three Media & Consultants in Cos Cob, Connecticut. “How many people have been turned away because of no inventory of MKZs?”

Ford said dealers will be fully stocked with MKZ models by next month. Lincoln began selling the restyled MKZ in January, with a starting price of $35,925.

April Target

“We have started delivering approximately 100 MKZs per day, even as we continue running every MKZ through its quality validation process,” Ken Czubay, Ford’s U.S. sales chief, told analysts yesterday on a conference call. “We are targeting dealers to be at normal MKZ stock positions at the beginning of April.”

Lincoln’s ads during the Feb. 3 NFL championship game were part of the third-most-watched TV broadcast in U.S. history, viewed by more than 108 million people. The ads highlighted the MKZ’s design, which bears little resemblance to the Ford Fusion midsize car upon which it’s based. The MKZ also offers a 15-square-foot (1.4-square-meter) retractable glass roof.

Cadillac, General Motors Co.’s luxury line, is rising as Lincoln falls. Cadillac’s February sales jumped 20 percent to 13,845 vehicles. The Lincoln MKZ is among the top trade-ins for the new Cadillac ATS sedan, said Jim Cain, a GM spokesman.

“The ATS had its strongest sales month since launch and it was Cadillac’s best-selling car,” Cain said in an e-mail yesterday. “More than three-quarters of ATS buyers are new to Cadillac.”

Advertising Push

Lincoln’s sales have fallen 25 percent this year after Ford initiated an advertising push in December to reintroduce the “Lincoln Motor Co.” with commercials featuring vintage models and an actor playing Abraham Lincoln.

The brand’s February performance followed a January total of 4,191 that was the lowest since July 1981, when Lincoln had sales of 3,506 models during a recession, according to Southfield, Michigan-based Ward’s Auto.

Lincoln’s decline last month also included a 13 percent drop to 1,883 for the MKX sport-utility vehicle, the brand’s top seller. Deliveries of the Lincoln Navigator large SUV tumbled 25 percent to 622.

“Is this really an inventory issue or is this a demand issue?” Lindland said. “They’re going to spin it as an inventory issue, but they can’t use that reason again. The March sales have to show numbers in the thousands from all this pent-up demand that they say will be unleashed.”

‘Blip Upward’

After Lincoln’s Super Bowl ads, online shopping activity for the brand increased, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst for Santa Monica, California-based auto researcher

“We actually saw a tiny blip upward in shopping consideration, which is an indication of marketing effectiveness,” Krebs said. “Then they didn’t deliver on the product.”

Ford was unchanged at $12.60 at the close in New York yesterday. The shares have dropped 2.6 percent this year, as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has gained 6.5 percent.

Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally is trying to revive Lincoln to get a larger slice of the market for luxury vehicles, which produce higher profits. Lincoln’s annual U.S. sales have fallen 65 percent since peaking in 1990 at 231,660.

Last year, Lincoln sold 82,150 vehicles. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW was the top-selling luxury-auto brand in the U.S. in 2012, at 281,460.

Image Issue

Ford is addressing the Lincoln inventory shortfall, while the bigger issue of the brand’s image remains, said Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence at Santa Monica-based TrueCar Inc.

Lincoln isn’t held in the same regard as BMW, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz or Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus, the top-selling luxury brands in the U.S., he said.

Aside from Lincoln’s Town Cars, which have served as airport shuttles for generations of business travelers, sightings of the brand’s models are pretty rare in Miami, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the markets where about 40 percent of luxury vehicles are sold in the U.S., Toprak said. Lincoln no longer makes the Town Car.

“I live in an upper-middle-class L.A. suburb, the demographic that buys most of the luxury cars in the country,” Toprak said. “When my neighbors see someone in a Lincoln, people ask, ‘Why’d you buy that?’ With any German or Japanese luxury brand, it’s a safe purchase.”

Lincoln’s newer vehicles are the best it has ever made, he said. “The problem is, in luxury you sell image, not metal.”

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