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Friday, 3 April 2015

The Lincoln Continental (for you millennials, it was once a car) makes a Chinese comback

General Douglas Macarthur famously said, “old Soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Whether or not this is true about soldiers, it seems not to be the case with at least some iconic automobile brands, once revered, then discontinued, only to once more see the light of manufacturing and marketing day. But even this Kat was surprised by this week’s announcement from Ford: the Lincoln Continental full-size sedan is being brought back. As unveiled in this week’s New York International Auto Show, the car that symbolized lavishness (or did I hear oversized garishness?) in the 1960s, only to be eclipsed by more stylish competitors from Europe and Japan and whose production was totally discontinued in 2002, is once again on sale on the show room display floor. The car of choice for U.S. presidents and Elizabeth Taylor is about to make an improbable come-back. In so doing, the reintroduction of the Continental has raised a fascinating issue of branding from the vantage of geography.

The 1960s Continental was viewed as quintessentially American (whether positively or negatively depended on who was doing the viewing). Given this heritage, the natural conclusion would be that Ford is reintroducing the Continental to reconnect with a new generation of American car purchasers who aspire to a luxury car. Au contraire—it turns out that, while Ford will not turn down uncle Marvin from Scarsdale or cousin Bob from Beverly Hills, the market that most interests Ford, and probably served as the commercial justification for the re-launch, is China. As stated by the New York Times:
“Full-size sedans can be highly profitable, particularly for option-laden models that ooze luxury. Ford estimates the global market to be approaching two million sales a year, with much of the future growth coming from rich Chinese buyers with chauffeurs.”
Ford, whose Lincoln luxury brands, heretofore sans the Continental, has amounted to sales of only 100,000 units per year, almost all in the U.S., is pinning its hopes on finally succeeding in the luxury car field on a defunct brand in a car market that did not effectively exist at the time of the brand’s heyday (think Cultural Revolution in China).

So what exactly will be the brand message (or what they are calling the “concept”) for the new Continental? Is it a play on the past, an appeal to nostalgia, an attempt to create something new, or something in between? The CEO of Ford, Mark Fields, carefully noted that while the brand’s heritage is “the cherry on the sundae”, one does not “want to wallow in the past. You want to recognize it, but make sure that this car moves the forward.” Moving forward especially in China, it would seem. As Kumar Galhotra, the president of the Lincoln division, has noted, both the spaciousness of the rear seat and the various luxurious amenities, including contoured seats with leg rests, a “refreshment storage” unit for one’s champagne, a rear seat table, large sunroof, and an array of hi-tech lighting features, were designed specifically for the Chinese market. The word that kept coming up in connection with the Chinese consumer was that the car was “presidential”, combining the attraction of a “Made in America-only” sense of opulence with the image that can only come from the luxury that is embodied in the larger-than-life back seat of the new Continental

This Kat suspects that other car manufacturers will be carefully watching how Ford will fare in its efforts to bring the Continental brand to China. More generally, brand professionals will take careful note on whether it is possible to resurrect the “heritage” of a defunct brand in a market light-years removed from the brand’s original stomping grounds. There is only one issue that still puzzles this Kat-- how many streets in Shanghai or Beijing will find themselves too narrow or crowded for the on-coming onslaught of Continental cars?

1 comment:

Roufousse T. Fairfly said...

The brand is better known in Asia than stated here, especially if your name is Mao or Kim, but you couldn't balance a coffin on the small rounded roofs of the newer models.

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