By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co wants to place its lagging Lincoln nameplate back on consumers' shopping lists with an ambitious marketing campaign that draws on its heritage and includes the upscale brand's first-ever Super Bowl spot.
The campaign blitz got under way on Monday and features a 60-second TV commercial that opens with an image of an actor playing Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. president after whom the brand is named. Ford has also renamed the brand the Lincoln Motor Co, which was its original name when Ford purchased it in 1922.
The moves are part of the second-largest U.S. automaker's latest effort to reinvent Lincoln two decades after its sales peak. Lincoln faces challenges in the increasingly competitive U.S. luxury vehicle market, starting with its musty brand image.
In 2011, Lincoln sales were just 85,643 - less than half the amount sold by Lexus, Toyota Motor Co's upscale brand.
"Nobody is waiting for the next ad message from Lincoln," Matt VanDyke, director of global Lincoln marketing, said in an interview. "We have to shout from the rooftops."
Under Chief Executive Alan Mulally, Ford pruned its stable of brands over the last six years to pay for its financial turnaround. Ford initially focused on its mainstream lineup but in the last few years began to turn its attention to Lincoln.
By 2015, Ford will launch seven new or revamped Lincolns, starting with the new MKZ sedan, which will be in dealerships by the end of this month. Mulally and Jim Farley, Ford's global marketing chief and new head of Lincoln, marked the campaign's launch in New York's Lincoln Center Plaza on Monday.
Ford is determined to show a different side to a brand that is known mostly for the discontinued Town Car. The goal is to attract younger, more progressive buyers by offering fresh designs, personalized service and glossier showrooms.
"I think we are well on our way and especially with the proof point of the first vehicle here today," Mulally said during an interview with Reuters Television Monday.
'WE WILL BECOME GREAT AGAIN'
A commercial during the Super Bowl, the most heavily watched annual event on U.S. television, is designed to quickly reach a large, broad audience and highlight the brand's new direction.
"The Super Bowl is such an unusual and attractive venue for a brand that is really rebuilding itself," Farley said in an interview with Reuters Television.
Ford is aiming for the new MKZ sedan to command a more than 50 percent "conquest rate." Currently, more than 40 percent of Lincoln's current buyers come from other luxury brands. The MKZ competes with Cadillac's CTS and the Lexus ES.
Ford wants to lower the average age of Lincoln buyers to 57 from 65 years old, and raise the target average income more than 50 percent to nearly $160,000 a year.
"This is how Lincoln started. This is how we will become great again," Ford says in print advertisements that began appearing in major newspapers and online media Monday.
"We can't do this one person at a time by word of mouth," VanDyke said. "We do need to get noticed by the masses."
Lincoln is partnering with late-night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon to spark interest ahead of the Super Bowl on social media networks like Twitter. Fallon has more than 7 million followers, while Ford has about 173,000.
Fallon reaches a different demographic for Lincoln, which has featured "Mad Men" actor John Slattery in its television advertisements for the last two years.
Ford's smaller rival, Chrysler Group LLC, has benefited from its iconic Super Bowl ad in 2011 that featured the tag line "Imported from Detroit." Ford decided not to advertise during the 2012 National Football League championship game.
The 2013 Super Bowl game will be broadcast by CBS Corp, which is selling 30-second ads for as much as $4 million.
LEVERAGING FORD SUCCESS
But some analysts and executives are skeptical about the brand's prospects. In an interview with The Detroit News last year, General Motors Co Chief Executive Dan Akerson said Ford "might as well sprinkle holy water" over the brand.
"I'm in southern California and there's not one Lincoln around here. The reason is it's not because Lincoln doesn't make good cars, it's because people buy image here," TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said.
Over the last two years, Ford winnowed its dealership network to focus on the top 130 luxury markets and created the brand's first dedicated design studio in about 40 years.
Ford has reworked the service standards for its roughly 325 U.S. Lincoln dealers using boutique hotels as inspiration. Ford is providing perks such as "the Lincoln date night" - a dinner reward to people who test-drive a Lincoln car.
Ford is also laying the groundwork to launch the brand in China, to take advantage of a growing appetite for luxury cars in the world's largest car market.
Initially, Ford sought to set Lincoln apart from the Ford brand in its U.S. marketing strategy, not unlike the distinction between Volkswagen AG and its top-tier Audi brand.
But Ford's successful turnaround under Mulally could revive interest in the brand, executives said.
"Traditionally, in North America, you try to hide your mainstream brand, but every wealthy person in America knows what happened to Ford," Farley said in an interview in Beijing in August. He took charge of the Lincoln brand on December 1.
"That's not to say we're going to make Ford a huge part of the marketing, but we're also not going to hide it," he said.
(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Maureen Bavdek, Bernard Orr)