DETROIT — For any luxury car brand, one indicator of success is whether customers know the mainstream brand to which it is related.
It's better if they don't.
Audi has gone to great lengths — even forgoing the cost savings that come with sharing parts — to erect a firewall between itself and parent Volkswagen.
All 228 Lexus dealerships in the United States are exclusive and physically separated from Toyota. The purpose is to keep the two brands distinct in the minds and experiences of buyers.
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Ford studied Audi and Lexus closely as it prepared to reinvent Lincoln.
It won't be easy, but it is necessary. The stakes are high. Ford has invested in seven new or upgraded Lincoln vehicles by 2014. Lincoln has concentrated its dealer network in the top 130 metro markets. Dealers have spent significant amounts to upgrade showrooms and service departments to deliver better customer service.
A successful luxury brand "has to offer something that you can't get from your mainstream brand," said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting.
Ford created the Premier Automotive Group in 1999 to showcase its Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin brands that "offered something Ford didn't have in-house."
That strategy backfired. Ford has since sold those luxury brands to help pay off debt. In 2010, Ford phased out Mercury. Lincoln was the only channel left to reach upscale consumers.
The priority is to create vehicles "uniquely Ford and uniquely Lincoln," said Derrick Kuzak, Ford's global product development chief.
It starts with the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ midsize sedans. Their underlying structures are the same. That's about all they have in common, said Kuzak, who revealed both cars last month at the Detroit auto show.
"There isn't a piece of (shared) sheet metal. The glass roof, the interior is all unique," Kuzak said.
The automaker created a separate Lincoln team and moved the designers and engineers into their own dedicated studio in space carved out of a Ford product-development center.
"I think the MKZ is different enough," IHS' Robinet said. "It has some borrowed pieces but is different where it matters."
When Ford was cash-strapped in its lean years, there was a greater need for economies of scale that led to greater parts-sharing across Ford, Mercury and Lincoln products.
"Though the demise of Mercury is sad, I think it's helped us to be able to differentiate the Lincoln product," said Moray Callum, Ford's North American design chief.
Another differentiation is the experience at the dealership, a concept that Lexus has embraced. All 228 Lexus dealers in the United States offer higher level of service and more amenities, said Andrew Coetzee, Lexus vice president of customer services and brand development.
Lincoln has 172 stand-alone dealerships, representing 35 percent of the stores in the top luxury markets. The goal is to raise that to 70 percent by 2015.
Lincoln must now blaze its own trail, and the 2013 MKZ will help. But it will take a number of hits to establish a new image.
Said Robinet: "It won't be defined overnight."