Musings of an Aussie design strategist gone North

Lincoln to hit Weight Watchers. Unsurprisingly, Mercury dragged along for the ride.


Automotive News (sub reqd.) is reporting that Lincoln and Mercury are looking to rationalise their product range by downsizing existing products and exploring new market segments. Although hardly surprising in the context of an industry-wide trend for downsizing, it is interesting that Ford is applying this strategy to it’s steadfastly large-car near-premium and premium brands.

Lincoln’s intentions were made clear with the delightfully characterful, Focus-based C Conept at January’s Detroit show and AN reports that the next MKS saloon and a small crossover will be moving to the Mondeo and Kuga platforms respectively. So far, so rational and so on trend even if the C Concept making production is “far from definite” according to Amy Wilson, author of the article.

Based on Amy’s intel though, it seems that Mercury will be… doing exactly the same thing! The other Merc will produce a four-door sedan based on the Focus, the Milan will move to the Mondeo platform and the Mariner will share its guts with the Kuga/Lincoln twins. Awesome.

For as long as I can remember, Mercury has struggled to find it’s place in the Ford Portfolio. Positioned as an entry-level premium brand to slot between work-a-day Ford and the once-glorious Lincoln, Merc has suffered the worst evils of badge-engineering, mis-directed marketing (the Milan Voga, aimed at Hispanic women being my fave) and being sandwiched between brands that gave it no room to breath. Surely the introduction of the new Ford Taurus, with it’s premium aspirations, will only cloud things further.

One could quite easily draw the conclusion that Mercury has no reason to live, given that the plans outlined simply call for still more badge-engineering. Indeed, the number of times that talk of Merc’s demise has emanated from Ford HQ tends to suggest that thoughts of Mercuricide have crossed the minds of Dearborn’s strategists more than once. Yet I can’t help feeling that the brand could still be put to some good.

Ford has developed some industry-leading ICE, hybrid and electric technologies and possesses studios of talented designers champing at the bit for a genuine challenge. Could Mercury, as it’s name suggests, become Ford’s messenger from the gods, bringing with it tales of a glorious, sustainable future? Why not allow Mercury to be the harbinger of Ford’s drive-train technologies and sustainability strategies in urban-appropriate packages?

This kind of test-bed automotive brand focused on urban vehicles isn’t entirely without precedent. Autobianchi fulfilled the same role for Fiat Group from ’55 to ’95 and presaged many innovations that later found their way into mainstream Fiat and Lancia products. You may scoff, wondering what place anonymous Mercury has becoming an expression of new urban cool, but let’s face it, what have they got to lose? Certainly not brand appeal. In the 2009 J.D. Power APEAL survey, Mercury sat comfortably in the bottom 10, along with Chrysler, Hyundai, Saab and Suzuki.

Given all the discussions I’ve had with @joesimpson and @charmermark about Ford’s future direction and encouraging a radical shift towards new models of personal mobility, Mercury’s reinvention as a sustainability-focused brand is scenario that I’d like to explore further. So over to you, dear reader. What do you think?

[Source: Automotive News (sub reqd.)]


Filed under: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Sustainability, , , , , , , , ,

Brand Capital and How Not to Spend It

Picture 4

Over the last decade I’ve noticed an increasing number of brands willing to cash in on their previously unimpeachable images in the chase for bigger margins.

Sloppy strategies and even sloppier products have dealt manifold blows to companies like Mercedes-Benz (1st gen. A-Class, R-Class and Maybach), Porsche (Cayenne) and BMW (X6, X5 & 6Ms and 5 Series GT). For now, these brands can manage it. Decades of superb, focussed products have established strong brand perceptions that will take a few cheap hits (although I’d argue that Mercedes is really starting to try the patience of even the mainstream car nut with products like the new E-Class).

There are other brands, however, that can’t afford to play so loose and free with their brand capital and Aston Martin is a prime example. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Premium, Sustainability, Things I Hate, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Quote of the Day

“This is a non-rational business. It’s not irrational. But it’s not necessary for anyone to get a new car—almost ever.”

Jerry Hirshberg, former president of Nissan Design International


When Jerry Hirshberg uttered these words in an interview with Gary Vasilash of Automotive Design and Production back in 2002 he was fresh from taking part in a highly successful product renaissance at Nissan. He was at the height of his powers: making consumers fall in love with a product that they didn’t need.

Hirshberg was the guy that, when Nissan had sunk to a financial and creative low in the late 90’s, suggested reviving the Z. Clearly he knows how to pull at consumer heart strings to get a return on investment.

I don’t think we will ever eviscerate emotion from the car/human equation but what if the emotions we feel in relation to cars change? Imagine, for a minute, if automotive brands could no longer leverage power, size, opulence and selfishness as their emotional draw cards, but instead had to appeal with intelligence, authenticity, longevity and real value. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Golf VII to Downsize: Told you so!


I was asked early last year what my opinion was on the future of the C Segment and what I believed then is what I still belive now: C Segment cars are too big, too space inefficient and, crucially, too heavy.

My conclusion was that any forward thinking manufacturer would take a similar approach to the one Mazda took when redesigning the 2: downsize and lighten up.

Following this assertion, I had a period of wondering if it would come true as each successive C Segment preview and launch continued the trend for bloat. Even Mazda, who has lead the recent focus on generational weight management let their game slip with the new 3.

Well it looks like VW is taking the lead with rumours pointing to a lighter, smaller MK VII Golf for 2012. The Golf has been one of the clearest indicators of C Segment bloat and to see a Mk 1 GTi parked next to a Mk V R32 is to understand why that later car needs 250ps and an Arabian oil field to be fun. It weighs 1612 Kg for pity’s sake! So talk of a smaller platform, lighter materials and a focus on small-capacity engines with amazing HCCI technology was music to my ears.

Having observed with wonder as VW’s engineers sent to market paragons of capability such as the Veyron and mental engines such as a V5, W12 and V10 TDi, it’s clear the intelligence is there. It’s seems it’s now being directed in a thoroughly useful, more sustainable direction.

[Source: Auto Express Image: Wiki Commons]

Filed under: Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Things I like, , , , , ,

Mazda Kiyora: The start of something big.


There was a time when Mazda, like Honda, Nissan and Toyota, was a premium manufacturer. Their Eunos, Xedos and stillborn Amati brands were an attempt to crack the burgeoning premium market in the early 90’s. Sadly, unlike their Japanese counterparts (who have gone on to achieve moderate-to-stellar success with Acura, Infiniti and Lexus respectively), Mazda never quite made it work. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Car, Concept, Design, Design Strategy, Premium, Things I like, , , , , ,

Lincoln comes through with the goods…kinda.

Today seems as good a day as any to start the little experiment that is DownsideUp. I can’t promise you much but here goes…

It seems only yesterday that the bosses of the Big Three made their separate ways to Washington to plead for more cash in that most inappropriate of vehicles, the company private jet. It seemed impossible that companies headed by these insensitive oafs could actually produce anything remotely relevant for the Detroit show.

Well, I’ve been proved wrong!

Today Lincoln launched the Concept C, a vaguely C-Segment-ish hatch with a Fiat Multipla-aping 3-abreast seating layout. Of course the technical details are nothing but pie-in-the-sky stuff as far as any potential production version is concerned but it’s the package that really excited me.

Here is an American manufacturer seemingly realising that part of the future lies in downsizing. People who would have traditionally purchased D or even E Segment cars will be looking to get into something more manageable and economically/environmentally responsible but they aren’t going to want to give up on the luxuries, or indeed the sense of space, they have come to enjoy. The Concept C delivers on this idea by having a wonderful sense of spaciousness within its compact dimensions and an interior style and elegance appropriate to a small premium player.

For me the exterior design theme is a take-it-or-leave-it affair that plays on well established Lincoln themes somewhat awkwardly adapted to a radically smaller proportion. As I’ve said, the treat for me here was not so much the detailed execution and more Lincoln’s relisation that it can do small and still retain its values. Now let’s just hope FoMoCo has the bollocks to produce it and the American buying public can see it as a viable alternative.

More info at: Autoblog

Filed under: Car, Concept, Detroit, Motor Shows, , , ,

About DownsideUpDesign

I'm Drew Smith and I'm a freelance design strategist and journalist for the automotive industry. DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. Get in touch at downsideupdesigner (at) me (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.