Lincoln Navigator consumer marketing manager Carey White is under no delusions that his brand has a perception problem with the very people it needs to lure into dealerships.
"With the younger generation, Lincoln doesn't have much of an identity. Nobody hates us, but we're also not a vehicle that's going to… appeal to every teenager in the world," he says at the Chicago auto show. "For us, the challenge is taking it step by step, segment by segment."
Fortunately, the addition of new models like the Lincoln MKZ has helped change that. Compared to the previous MKZ -- and the Lincoln Zephyr before that -- White says the new sedan has brought in younger, wealthier customers, who also are spending more on the car than before.
"All very good indicators for a brand in the middle of its revitalization," he says. "It's a process that takes time."
Interestingly, White claims that Lincoln isn't simply bringing in customers who, say, can now afford a car that's slightly nicer than a Ford. Instead, he says that many Lincoln MKZ customers came from owning Audis and BMWs. As for the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, a surprising number of shoppers are trading in their Toyota Prius. Those customers -- many of whom already own a luxury car in addition to a Prius -- are interested in the MKZ Hybrid because they feel, "I can get the feeling of being greenly responsible with luxury, and I don't have to drive a box," explains Lincoln representative Sam Locricchio.
The next step in the company's revitalization is the launch of the Lincoln MKC. Although the idea of a small luxury crossover isn't new, and White even admits that the MKC is following the success of Acura and BMW crossovers, Lincoln doesn't feel like it's late to the party.
"Right now is a great time for us to be there," White says. "That segment has shown very strong growth over the past three to five years, and it's continuing to grow."
Although Lincoln is focusing on selling cars on the east and west coasts, the brand also says it will never abandon the "heartland" in the Midwest. In part, that's because customers in the Midwest have an attachment to the heritage of the Lincoln brand, thanks to its decades-long history of making luxury cars.
"To truly be a luxury brand, having heritage as your base gives you that cachet of cool," Locricchio says. "Fortunately, we can check that box."
Going forward, on the other hand, Lincoln will focus just as much on the ownership and buying experience as the cars itself. White says that dealership strategies, like the Lincoln Concierge and "Date Night" programs will continue to ramp up as a way to draw in new customers -- and keep existing ones.
"The end goal is to keep them loyal," explains White. "It's a much warmer process than some of our competitors."
He sees this kind of "experiential" program as "absolutely huge" for turning around Lincoln's brand perception and drawing customers out of other luxury cars.
"Most of them [luxury-car shoppers] have the money to buy anything that they want in terms of driving, but they choose brands for certain reasons," White says. "Some of them are more about, 'I want to feel the experience, I want to experience the experience,' and I think Lincoln's much more on the side of the experiential piece."
As for the future of Lincoln, White is less forthcoming. Although the company has publicly said that it will launch four new models -- the MKZ and MKC are the first two -- White won't be drawn on what else is in the pipeline.
"The next 12 to 13 months for us are absolutely huge," he says. "We're always evaluating all segments and looking at trends."
"Hopefully we can meet again next year, same time, same place, and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about," White says, hinting we should look for a major debut at the 2015 Chicago auto show.