If you have a hard time keeping Lincoln’s model names straight, you’re not alone. They all begin with the same two letters, the cars themselves aren’t all that special, and even people who cover the automotive industry professionally have a hard time remembering which one is the MKS and which one is the MKZ. Luckily, it appears that after the Lincoln Continental Concept’s strong reception at the New York Auto Show, the rest of Lincoln’s lineup will be dropping its MK designations and receive real names again.
The first sign that Lincoln’s naming convention was changing came when the company announced that the production Continental would replace the MKS next year with its name intact. Later, Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas, said at an auto industry breakfast: “I get it. I know MKX and C and Z and T. I’ve studied them very well. I know them well, but we also understand the issue. It’s, frankly, where the auto industry — the premium industry — has gone, if you look at all the nameplates. But another way Lincoln could distinguish itself is to leverage its heritage. So I’ll leave it at that.”
Hinrichs added, “Without divulging the future, we’re very excited about the Continental name and the attention it’s gotten.”
It might not be official confirmation that historical names are coming back, but it looks like Lincoln is doing everything it can to get people talking about its name changes before they are actually confirmed. The only Lincoln vehicle without an MK designation, the Navigator, is almost guaranteed to keep its name after the official announcement. While sales of Lincoln’s MK-badged vehicles are down 7.2% this year, sales of the Lincoln Navigator are up 84%. That’s the kind of success you just don’t mess with.
While it’s been quite a while since Lincoln was relevant in the luxury car market, the MK designations are actually a fairly recent change. In 2006, Lincoln decided that bringing back the MK monikers would serve not only as a nod to the company’s past but would also encourage customers to focus less on the names of specific vehicles and more on the brand as a whole. It did exactly that, but unfortunately, achieving what Lincoln wanted was exactly the problem.
When Hinrichs said that the premium industry had moved away from actual names and toward names that are mostly jumbles of letters and numbers, he was right. Brands like Mercedes, BMW, and Audi don’t have a single vehicle in their lineups that doesn’t have an alpha-numeric name. They’re even inventing new combinations of alpha-numerics to confuse buyers even more.
As a result, owners might not know what cars they drive, but every single one of them knows what brands they own. It’s a plan that works for German luxury car manufacturers because names like “BMW” and “Mercedes” are prestigious, and owning a car from one of those brands reflects well on the owner.
Lincoln’s mistake was believing that its name still carried the same kind of prestige that it once did. By 2006, Lincoln was no longer a prestigious company. It was known as a company that built cars for the elderly, and the cars themselves were known for being slightly more luxurious, badge-engineered Fords. Owning a Lincoln wasn’t something to be proud of the way that it once was or the way that owning a Mercedes is. Without a prestigious badge on the hood or compelling vehicles in the lineup, Lincoln struggled.
Lincoln is not the first luxury brand to think that simply dropping real names from its models would be the key to sales success. Under the guidance of Johan de Nysschen, both Infiniti and Cadillac have adopted strategies very similar to Lincoln’s. Both companies already used alpha-numeric names on most of their vehicles, with the Cadillac Escalade being the obvious exception, but their new naming strategies now stick more closely to Lincoln’s old strategy. Infiniti sedans are named using “Q” and a number, while its SUVs use “QX” and a number. Cadillac, meanwhile, will soon name every car in its lineup using a “CT” and a number. People’s reactions to these name changes have been fairly negative, but how successful they end up being has yet to be seen.
The biggest alpha-numeric mistake, though, has to be Kia’s decision to call its first full-size luxury sedan the K900. Car buyers don’t see letters and numbers and automatically assume they’re looking at a luxury car. They ignore the letters and numbers, instead focusing on the brand that makes the car. While Kia makes some great automobiles, it still doesn’t have the reputation to sell a $60,000 car in large numbers.
What Kia should have done is taken a page out of Hyundai’s book from when it launched the Genesis. People didn’t necessarily know what a Genesis was or who made it, but it looked nice enough. Eventually they found out it was made by Hyundai, but by that point, they already had an opinion on the car. Hyundai doesn’t differentiate sales data of its Genesis sedan and coupe for the U.S., so getting a hard number on how well the Genesis is selling is pretty hard, but it’s safe to say both the Genesis and Hyundai’s second luxury sedan, the Equus, are both outselling the K900 by generous margins.
There’s no telling how long it will be before the Kia K900 gets a new name or how long Cadillac and Infiniti’s new naming conventions will stick around, but the good news is, Lincoln has realized that its MK idea wasn’t a good one, and it’s making a change. The Continental Concept was a strong concept, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as strong of a concept if it were called the MKS. Hopefully the production version will be as good as the concept looked, but at least it will have a strong name.