NEW YORK CITY — Luxury is a funny concept. You have to convince people that a few drops of colored water and chemicals in a fancy perfume bottle is worth $100, or that scraps of cotton sewn in an Asian sweatshop are “haute couture.” It’s the same with cars. The bare-bones economy car will get you there just as fast (considering congestion and speed limits), so something intangible has to drive you to pay three times as much for the leather seats and wood-grain veneers.


Ford is doing pretty well as 2011 comes to a close, but not so much the rather nebulous Lincoln division. In the wake of the company’s selloff of Jaguar and Land Rover, Lincoln (which might have been dropped altogether) has instead been anointed as the depository of all things luxury, but even Ford acknowledges its image is a little fuzzy. And it’s not helped by an alphabetically challenged product line — MKT, MKS, MKZ, MKX (below) — that the public is having trouble keeping straight. Lincoln is looking for a new image, and that’s why I was invited to the “What’s Next for Luxury?” forum in New York with Ford’s vice president of marketing and Lincoln’s chief designer.


How would you like to have the dealer come to you, and personally take your order for a Lincoln built to your personal tastes? You want polka-dot pink and fuchsia leather? They did it that way back in the 1930s, and the customer is always right. Personal luxury as a way to re-launch Lincoln is the vision of Jim Farley, a Lexus veteran who is Ford’s global group vice president of marketing. Farley recently started having his suits made to order, and he likes the posh British word “bespoke,” meaning made to the buyer’s specs. The company is being a bit vague about what this will actually mean — will you able to specify a special compartment for your golf bag, as you could in the coachbuilt days?


The concept needs updating. How about the service department thinking ahead and handing you the keys to your loaner car as you drive into the parking lot (no check-in necessary) or, better yet, coming to you and doing the repairs on premises? It would probably mean more than free coffee and WiFi in the waiting room, where they keep the dog-eared back issues of Car and Driver.


Lincoln will unveil a new personal concept car, priced somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000, at the big auto show in Detroit next month, Farley told me.


The new car should dazzle, because Lincoln needs to reinvent itself. In November, the division sold around 6,300 cars, down 17.6 percent from the same month last year. The MKZ and MKS (both sedans) were down 18.9 and 8.4 percent respectively, and the MKT (a luxury mid-sized crossover) down 45.1 percent. They sold only 324 of those, so the refreshed version recently shown in Los Angeles isn’t coming a moment too soon.


Part of the re-invention involves Lincoln shaking up its ad agency, WPP, which had handled the account with a special "Team Detroit" unit with input from many in-house firms. Now WPP will give Lincoln its own New York-based boutique agency. The Mad Men would approve.


Greg Furman is the founder and chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council, and to hear him tell it “luxury” is constantly being redefined. These days, the important luxury customer has $1 million in liquid assets (net worth doesn’t count), and the family with $150,000 a year is out of the market. “Only 10 percent of the real money is inherited,” said Furman, whose suit was as bespoke as they come. “The rest is working-class kids from humble roots who have reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs.” They ate mac and cheese growing up; they have to have “connoisseurship” drilled into them. They want to know why stuff costs what it does, “and that’s a huge opportunity for brands,” Furman said. “It’s a high-touch environment, and the salesperson has to be a strategic partner for the brand. Unfortunately, customer service is in the crapper.”


In other words, if a snooty salesperson turns up his nose when the Beverly Hillbillies walk into the dealership, it’s a big loss for the brand. Luxury carmakers have had to adjust to the fact that many of their buyers come from desert kingdoms in the Middle East, so they also have to be ready for new money. In 2010, Ferrari sold 6,500 cars, and 349 went to places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi (more than China, and almost as many as sold in Europe).


Max Wolff, Lincoln’s chief designer, pointed out that luxury cars are a good test bed for introducing tech innovations. For Lincolns, that will mean electronic shifters with no physical connection to the transmission. And it should mean the last word in in-car entertainment. I sat in an MKT (or was it an MKX?) and played with the MyLincoln Touch system. It had a nice designer interface on top of the industry’s leading infotainment system. Voice commands help with distraction, but I’m still looking for a system as good as Siri, the personal assistant on the iPhone 4S.


Note how this MKS commercial goes for the high-tech market, a very different tack from Chrysler with its "Made in Detroit" ads featuring Eminem and crew.



In the old days, Farley said, no two Lincolns were alike. That’s true, but Lincoln also introduced cars like the KB V12 at the height of the Depression. Later, it priced itself out of the market with the virtually hand-built (and exquisite) Mark II of 1956 — which cost $10,000 in ‘50s bucks! I’m guessing $50,000 is a sweet spot for the new bespoke Lincoln. And it has to make me, the customer who’s anxious about my taste (or lack of it), feel like a million bucks.


A word to the wise for Lincoln: Get rid of the sound-alike MK names and bring back something iconic: Continental, Premiere, Zephyr, Cosmopolitan. Heck, even Town Car is a pretty good name.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

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