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Lincoln: President, Martyr and Confused Brand

Alan Brew

When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton solemnly intoned: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

While his words were prescient, he didn’t go far enough. He could have said: Lincoln belongs to the ages, and eventually to corporate America.

Lincoln is an industry. By one estimate, more than 16,000 books have been written about the 16th president. And when Daniel Day-Lewis duly lifted the Oscar for best actor at the Academy Awards for his performance in the movie Lincoln, it was a fitting tribute to the actor and the man he portrayed.

Why this enduring fascination with Lincoln?

Lincoln’s life exemplified what has been variously labeled “the American dream,” the right to rise from rags to riches — or in Lincoln’s case quite literally to rise from a log cabin to the White House. His story, the Lincoln brand, embodies gritty determination, honesty, family values, unswerving belief in America and the basic rights of his fellow men. It’s a powerful symbol of what ordinary Americans want to believe about social mobility and the opportunity to get ahead.

Robert Todd Lincoln, the late President’s only surviving son, gave Lincoln Financial Group permission to use his father’s likeness and has built it’s company story around the Lincoln brand. The company recently capitalized on the Oscars to draw more awareness to their brand by running an ad in the Wall Street Journal — see the ad.

In an attempt to revive the fortunes of its Lincoln brand, the Ford Motor Company is aiming to “return Lincoln to its original branding” and to “restore Lincoln to its luxury status.” Putting that in plain English: Ford isn’t selling enough Lincoln cars because the brand has been neglected. The Lincoln connection in this case is tenuous: The Lincoln Motor Company was formed in August, 1917 by Henry Leland, a former manager of the Cadillac division of General Motors, and his son, Wilfred. Leland named the new company after his hero for whom he cast a vote in 1864. Ford acquired Lincoln in 1922. When Ford started selling off its Premier Auto Group brands — Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin — a few years ago, the primary aim was to raise cash before the financial storm that took down GM and Chrysler.
The plan was for Lincoln to be the division of Ford that sells luxury cars. But here, in 2013, with a depleted lineup and no signature model, a brand with little discernible character, and fierce competition for luxury car buyer’s attention from Lexus, Mercedes and BMW, what does a car company to do? It splurges on advertising. See the spot below.

Why would a 21st Century automaker want to invoke the spirit of a 19th Century president whose main mode of transport was a horse a carriage? And does today’s 40-year-old buyer really care if Lincoln made cool luxury cars before he was born and then stopped making anything impressive at all? Then there’s the name change to Lincoln Motor Company. It’s an attempt to isolate the brand and distance it from Ford, but it’s just a name change. Ford still wholly owns it. So, what’s it all about?

Certainly not brand building. This is an exercise in slick advertising to mask the absence of a brand. Ford needs to seriously rethink the Lincoln brand and recast it toward a clearly-defined market segment it can own. And the Lincoln Financial Group, well they just really need a new logo.

*This post has been tweaked from its original form found on namedroppings.

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