Lincoln Execs Comment on Pivot to Luxury with Nautilus and Vitrine Strategies

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Cover image for  article: Lincoln Execs Comment on Pivot to Luxury with Nautilus and Vitrine Strategies

Luxury cars achieved a milestone in the first nine months of 2020 -- they outperformed the mainstream in the U.S. The luxury share rose 44.3 percent compared to the same period in 2019. The top brand was Mercedes-Benz, with 196,838 sales in the period.

These results show why every manufacturer wants luxury entrants today, and why the Lincoln brand is definitely moving upscale. Last year, Lincoln, with sales of 112,000 in the U.S., placed behind luxury brands Infiniti (117,000), Cadillac (156,000), Acura (157,000), Tesla (232,000), Audi (224,000), Lexus (298,000), Mercedes-Benz (316,000) and BMW (324,000). Obviously, the brand wants to do better domestically.

Lincoln's strength is in its China sales, and in its North American SUVs, which saw a 5.8 percent jump in the third quarter (to 22,591). The new Nautilus (pictured at top) and Corsair are doing well. Globally, sales were up 17 percent year-over-year in the quarter, and October was the company's best in 34 years.

The Nautilus mid-size crossover replaced the confusingly named MKX as an all-new vehicle in 2019. Yes, giving the cars names was a step in the right direction. But the Nautilus has so far been underperforming, with sales of 5,771 in the third quarter (down from 7,962 in the same period of 2019, when it was a new model). Michael Sprague, North American director for Lincoln, attributes this to the car being in "an incredibly competitive segment." But let's face it, allSUV segments are highly competitive now.

So, what does Lincoln do with the Nautilus? It pivots upmarket, with a refresh for the 2021 model year, with a mild front-end restyling and a decidedly more luxurious choice of interiors. It's all, well, horizontal, said Trevor Scott, brand marketing manager, designed to enhance the owner's sense of security and sanctuary.

"The stacked horizontal elements [on the instrument panel] create a panoramic calming effect," said interior design chief Robert Gelardi. The screen, at 13.2 inches wide, is horizontal, too, bucking a vertical trend.

A feature I've never heard of is a virtual owner's manual accessible on the screen. It's a simple and welcome idea.

Lincoln has been emphasizing the New Age elements and the "Power of Sanctuary." Customers are offered free pickup and delivery for servicing (which has proven very popular) and a year's subscription to the Calm meditation service (with 15,000 owners opting in).It's a tick upwards. The exclusive Black Label cars get a Chalet theme "evoking the contrasting pleasures of mountain slopes and the warm comfort of an après-ski lodge, with espresso and Alpine Venetian leathers and deep Silverwood appliqués." Flight, coming in 2021, "harmoniously combines rich leathers and other materials to give the sensation of taking to the skies."

Black Label was launched six years ago as a $6,000 option with some great perks: detailing and washes, service pickups and drop-offs, and reservations and a special menu at selected partner restaurants.

And then there are the new dedicated Vitrine dealerships (above), which have seen a 20 percent sales increase. "People are recognizing these beautiful new facilities," Sprague said. "Vitrine" is a French word for glass display cases, and in the new stand-alone showrooms (separate from Ford) there are big floor-to-ceiling windows, with the cars illuminated at night.

Lincoln has 150 dealers in the 30 top luxury markets in the U.S., and it first asked them to go Vitrine in 2018. Those markets account for 70 percent of the industry's overall luxury sales.

Ford-Lincoln dealers protested the size of the showrooms they'd have to build for Vitrine, and how they can have either a two-car display or one for four to six. Dealers are eligible to get $100,000 subsidies for signage that will distinguish Vitrine from their other offerings. It's all about creating a separate luxury identity from the parent company, as Honda did for Acura, Toyota for Lexus, Hyundai for Genesis, and Nissan for Infiniti. So far, there are 21 Vitrine dealerships, and six more opening by the end of the year.

But here's a question I put to Sprague. Do consumers even want dealerships anymore? Hasn't COVID pivoted buyers to buying online, a trend that was already underway before the pandemic? "Long-term, there will still be a need for dealer partners," he said. "We are making it easier for digital sales and buying online, but people still want to take a test drive. We will continue to invest in physical locations, because our customers want that human interaction. That's true even as our customers schedule service via a mobile app."

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