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The right executive to return Lincoln brand to luxury status

By Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press –

It’s now a little easier to believe Ford’s promise to turn Lincoln into a legitimate luxury brand.

Lincoln will launch the new 2013 MKZ sedan next month, but my confidence has less to do with three-letter car names than a two-word executive: Jim Farley.

Raising Lincoln to the level of Audi, Cadillac, Lexus and Infiniti — Ford doesn’t even pretend to aspire to Mercedes-Benz and BMW yet — may not be possible, but if anybody can lead, wheedle, inspire and browbeat Ford into it, Farley’s the guy.

Few auto executives can match Farley’s record of success in marketing, product planning, strategy and creating a hip and desirable brand image. Nobody has as much reason as the passionate Farley does to drive Lincoln to success.

He’s been bullish on Lincoln since the day he walked in the door at Ford, hired away from a brilliant career at Toyota in November 2007. Farley praised the brand’s potential when nobody else would. He eagerly strode out on the thinnest of limbs, volunteering that Lincoln had great potential in China and other foreign markets at a time when most of his listeners weren’t sure the brand had a future in the U.S.

Questions about Lincoln’s viability persist. It sold just 85,643 vehicles in 2011. Through 10 months this year, it’s about 3 percent below that anemic level, having sold a total of 69,034 cars and trucks. To understand just how lame those figures are, understand that Buick — itself a brand on the ropes — outsold Lincoln 2-to-1 in 2011. Honda’s struggling Acura upscale brand whipped Lincoln by 43 percent.

Despite that, Ford doubled down on Lincoln. It closed the Mercury brand that had helped pay Lincoln’s bills. Ford CEO Alan Mulally anointed Lincoln as the automaker’s sole upscale brand, vital to competing with multi-brand monoliths like General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen.

Lincoln’s reinvention began a couple of years ago with three executives: marketing boss C.J. O’Donnell, product development chief Scott Tobin and designer Max Wolff. They laid the foundation, reworking the dealer network, creating a new design theme and pushing Ford’s midsize platform to the limit to create the new MKZ.

That’s a good start, but it will take serious clout and a determination verging on obsession to get Lincoln to the next level.

Ford has tried and failed to reinvigorate Lincoln before. The automaker’s management either did not understand luxury brands or was unwilling to spend what it took to make Lincoln competitive. The company flailed about with neither a coherent plan nor a vigorous brand-champion for Lincoln.

Farley’s elevation to executive vice president in charge of Lincoln is just what the doctor ordered.

Farley knows luxury. His jobs at Toyota included running Lexus sales, service and product planning. His stature and relationships within Ford make him Lincoln’s strongest advocate since Edsel Ford’s eye for design turned Lincoln into a great and uniquely American luxury brand.

Reviving Lincoln would be a career-defining achievement for Farley. He already launched Toyota’s youth-oriented Scion brand, in addition to his work with Lexus and Toyota, and played a role in saving the Ford brand. This challenge is tailor-made for Farley’s skills and mind-set.

The three Lincolns that will debut between now and 2014 are pretty much set. It could be years before we know whether Farley pushed Ford out of its comfort zone and into the luxury market.

There’s no guarantee this latest attempt to elevate Lincoln will succeed. I’m still skeptical Ford will commit the resources to develop the unique vehicles a viable luxury brand demands.

I’m sure, however, that Jim Farley knows where he wants to take the brand, and that he’ll fight to get it there.

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