Mercury Blues: Is Ford's Troubled Brand Singing Its Last Song?

February 18, 2008
Well if I had money, tell you what I’d do
I’d go downtown and buy a Mercury or two
Crazy ‘bout a Mercury
Lord I’m crazy about a Mercury
I’m gonna buy me a Mercury
And cruise it up and down the road.

It’s nice to know that singer Alan Jackson has a thing for Mercury, because it doesn’t seem like many other American motorists do. Despite the addition of some critical new products, including the 2009 Mariner hybrid crossover, as well as the restyled and renamed Sable sedan, things aren’t looking too good for the “other” Ford division.

Sinking fast, Mercury’s sales fell a painful 35 percent in January, compared to year-earlier numbers. And for all of 2007, the brand’s volume slumped 7 percent to a grand total of just 168,422 cars, trucks, and crossovers. That’s barely a third of Mercury’s all-time record, 528,033, set back in 1985. And it’s even less than the numbers that convinced General Motors to pull the plug on its Oldsmobile division.

Dead man driving? There are plenty of analysts, such as Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting, and Dan Gorrell, who question why Ford continues to pump resources into a brand that has had only one up year since the mid-1980s. They’d pull the plug and focus the automotive’s limited resources on the brands that matter, including both the Blue Oval, and Lincoln, which actually posted a much-needed gain, in 2007.

Going back a few years, Ford had a seemingly good reason to stoke Mercury’s fire. The brand had a reputation for styling and performance, and was a bit more exclusive than the mainstream Ford division. By the time the original Sable came out, in 1986, however, Mercury was little more than a badge-engineered alternative, its products perhaps offering a slight more bling than those carrying the Ford nameplate.

There was a brief moment of hope a decade ago, when, under former Ford Motor Co. CEO Jacques Nasser, Mercury introduced a couple truly distinctive products, such as the edgy little Cougar. But in typical fashion, the automaker did little to refresh its design, and it quickly lost both its panache and its market.

At least there was enough demand to justify the additional brand. According to former Ford marketing chief Jim O’Connor, Mercury added enough demand to keep Ford’s factories busy, something that might not happen were it not to offer both a Taurus and a Sable. But at current volumes, that argument just doesn’t hold water anymore.

So why not put Mercury out of its misery?

That’s a question new marketing czar, Jim Farley, has had to consider. But for now, at least, he’s giving the troubled brand a reprieve. While he’s still formulating his strategy, Farley seems intent on turning Mercury into a Detroit version of Toyota’s Scion. Industry aficionados will recall that the young executive initially came to the public’s attention as the first general manager of Toyota’s youth-oriented nameplate.

Scion’s approach is to offer a limited selection – typically no more than three separate models – of hip and often quirky products, such as the boxy xB. The strategy has been working quite well. For one thing, Scion helped boost Toyota’s overall volumes to the point that it pushed past Ford to become the No. 2 U.S. automaker in 2007.

Actually, the Scion numbers really aren’t much different from Mercury’s. More significantly, it’s been drawing in the sort of upwardly mobile trendsetters that have long ignored Toyota showrooms. And that could be the biggest payoff for Ford if it can revitalize the Mercury brand.

Traditionally, Mercury was the big-volume nameplate in Lincoln-Mercury showrooms. Going forward, suggests Farley, “Lincoln will be the volume brand.” But if Mercury can come up with some truly eye-catching products that draw in future luxury buyers, it will act as a magnet for the revival of the Lincoln brand, as well. And while the luxury marque’s recovery is still in the early stages, there are signs that Lincoln really can pull itself together.

But time, as the old cliché goes, really is running out. Farley and the rest of the Ford management team need to pull some sheetmetal rabbits out of the hat soon or there won’t be any Mercury left to save.

2010 Ford Fiesta Preview. A global compact-car party gets ready to make a stop in the States, for once. by Marty Padgett (2/14/2008)

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