What’s in a name: a look back at the “MK” naming scheme

Over the past decade or so, each new release or update from Lincoln sparked the same discussion : regardless of the product’s inner value, it was overshadowed by the quality of the brand’s then-naming convention made up of “MK” and a letter identifying a given model within the line-up. So, when Lincoln reintroduced the Continental nameplate as a replacement for the MKS, there was just about as much buzz around the name itself as there was about the car’s athletic look and level of luxury.

Lincoln Continental Concept

The Continental name makes a comeback for Lincoln’s next full-size sedan.

It is safe to say that if this change trickles down to the entire line-up, nobody will mourn the current nomenclature. Still, while it is globally unloved, it will be ten years old by the time the new Continental makes it to the showroom floor! So how come it was able to stay in use for so long? To understand it, we must not just take it as the result of a marketing director’s whim but as part of a bigger picture both within Ford and across the industry.

Ford’s not-so-better idea

Back in the 1990s, Lincoln had a line-up made of “legacy” names which matched the products’ spirit : Continental was the modern, technologically advanced and import-oriented offering, Town Car was the traditional expression of Lincoln’s know-how and the Mark series was the crown’s jewel. When the Navigator and later Aviator were introduced, it definitely seemed like Lincoln was working to build on strong name recognition.

lincoln town car 1991

Lincoln’s Town Car nameplate was synonymous with the brand’s status for many years.

But at the turn of century, things went South. On October 30, 2001 family heir William Clay Ford, Jr (known as Bill Ford) became the Corporation’s Chief Executive Officer. He replaced previous and controversial CEO Jacques Nasser, and took the helm of the company at a time when big changes were necessary to avoid bankruptcy in the long run. This new approach meant closing factories, reorganising Ford’s investments abroad, but Bill Ford made it quite clear it would also be about a new corporate culture, and he got involved in the product development and marketing of the brand’s products.

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Jacques Nasser and Bill Ford in 2001.

For what concerns us here, it meant that as new products were introduced, a new naming convention would be put in place to “build up” brand recognition. It may not have been the best idea given how many historic names Ford and Mercury had already worked hard to establish as household names, but it was decided that Ford vehicles would start with an “F” and Mercury vehicles would start with an “M”. This new rule would not concern “icons and legends” however, like the Thunderbird and Mustang, and would not affect trucks; actually, it is fair to think that Ford was trying to channel some of the continued success of the F-series trucks into its cars.

2006 Mercury Monterey. (10/13/05)

Beige-tastic Mercury Monterey was far remote from the dazzling Mercury sedans of yore.. Ford’s equivalent, the Freestar, did not fare much better with reviewers.

Mercury got the Montego and Milan, Marineer and Mountaineer, but also the Monterey minivan – talk about preserving famed nameplates. At Ford, given the importance of its sales, it was probably more of a problem : it meant releasing the Five-Hundred with its name spelt out, even on the car’s decklid. It also meant releasing the infamous Freestyle and Freestar, which became the butt of a few jokes even though the Freestyle was arguably a relevant crossover much like what is available today. Some insiders even refered to that new nomenclature as the « Ford Fiasco ».

Peer pressure

It is safe to say that the marketing experts who spent time on Ford’s and Mercury’s branding had to think of Lincoln as well, even though management was somewhat separated thanks to Lincoln’s inclusion into the PAG (Premier Auto Group), Ford’s luxury portfolio, in 1999. At the very least it must have sparked a discussion on the modernization of the brand’s image to attract new, younger and affluent buyers.

Ford-Motor-erases-operating-red-ink-1

Ford’s Premier Automotive Group was an attempt to spin-off its many luxury acquisitions and Lincoln into a hip entity managed away from Dearborn, in 1999. It did not yield the expect results and folded a few years later.

Indeed, it has long been believed that alphanumerical denominations build up brand recognition in the luxury market because they force you to emphasize and remember the name of the brand rather than any given model, which supports global marketing efforts and eases cross-shopping within the brand. Just think : among German imports, which were the first ones to take that rational approach in that particular segment, a 335i is first of all a BMW, and a C300 is first of all a Mercedes-Benz. You first consider them for the brand’s aura, and then you pick your particular medicine. It can also create a cohesive line-up, in which the customer can easily work his way up or down to find exactly what he wants or can afford for instance.

2004_bmw_5_series_100006421_l

BMW’s 5-series is the brand’s “piece de resistance” and it has built BMW’s reputation over the years.

It is then no surprise that Lexus, Infitini and Acura worked really hard to establish brand identity at the time of their launch in North America, but then adopted alphanumerical denominations for their cars – it is clear that, starting from scratch, Japanese makes could not be reproached with letting go of names customers particularly liked, but they could have established some new ones had they wanted to : for instance, the Acura Legend did start with a proper name before becoming the RL.

2007 Cadillac STS Platinum

Cadillac’s STS indirectly marked the end of the Seville nameplate, transitioning from older Cadillacs to newer, more dynamic models.

This shift in marketing in the luxury market was also felt among domestic manufacturers, first to identify import-oriented trim levels and specifications, then to identify models in their own right. That is why the Chrysler LHS finally replaced the New Yorker on which it was based, and why Cadillac adopted its current nomenclature (to take but one example, Seville was available as the import-oriented Seville STS starting in 1988, and then became the STS in 2005).

Lincoln’s dilemma

In that context, it appears that it was deemed necessary that Lincoln got a new nomenclature and that unlike Ford and Mercury it should follow what was happening in the luxury market at the time in order reinforce the brand’s image. On that level too, it seems that the LS was truly the new face of Lincoln : in addition to being clearly benchmarked against the toughest European competition, it had a name that stood out from the rest of the line-up. Actually, if it had not been for trademark woes between Ford and Lexus, the LS should have been available as LS6 and LS8, which could itself have started a new tradition for the brand. But, as we know, the LS was not to have a direct successor, be it in spirit or in name.

2003lincolnLS

Lincoln’s LS sports sedan was different in styling, architecture and name. But it did not spearhead the kind of renaissance the CTS brought to Cadillac.

So, when it came time to bring some sparkle to Lincoln’s image, executives did what any other manufacturer would have done : they looked at their biggest asset and figured they could make the most out of it. Remember Oldsmobile and its suite of “Cutlass” cars in the 1980s? And, without a doubt, the biggest asset they had were the Continental nameplate and the Mark series, the former being much more difficult to break down into a line of distinct vehicles. So, they went for the Mark. Let’s remember that Lincoln’s pick-up truck was the Mark LT, not the MKLT and that it was released in late 2005, around the same time all those changes were happening, so it seems that Lincoln toyed with the idea of using the actual word before they settled on a stylised “MK”.

Lincoln-MKS-Concept-007

M-K-S or Mark-S? You would be justified to think it was the former… until you talked to your dealer.

Still, the first real and final introduction of the new nomenclature happened with the 2006 Lincoln MKS Concept at the Detroit Auto Show and the announcement that the midsize Zephyr (which had been released in the Fall of 2005 as well) would be reintroduced as the MKZ. Around that time when interviewed on the showroom floor, Peter Horbury, Lincoln’s design mentor, would refer to both vehicles as respectively the Mark-S and the Mark-Z. Interestingly enough, there was from text alone no way to tell how to pronounce the new names – possibly for copyright reasons. As the year went on and the MKX crossover was announced (as the production version of the Aviator concept), Horbury once again would refer to it as the Mark-X, which then clashed with the proper Mark X Concept from 2004 and the fact that it could also mean Mark 10. Still following?

mkx13_pg_003_ext_full

It seems that of all the MK Lincolns, the MKX was the one wearing its name best, thanks to the crossover’s AWD capability among other things.

Needless to say, confusion was not only the problem of auto reporters and magazine readers. For dealers too, the new scheme was particularly difficult to adopt : not only was it difficult to market different vehicles wearing such similar names, but if there was no link between the written and spoken forms of said names… it would prove a little too much. So, between the early days of 2006 and the beginning of the model-year in July of 2007 and the formal release of the upgraded MKZ, Ford had to backtrack and go with a pronunciation along the lines of “Em-Kay-Zee” (or “Zed” in Canada). Still, it is clear that this was a last-minute change of heart, as it neuters the reference to the Mark series and as Peter Horbury himself kept refering to the cars as Mark-something even after the release of the MKZ and MKX.

Lincoln-Zephyr_2006_800x600_wallpaper_13

When it introduced this Zephyr concept in 2004, Lincoln worked hard to bring up the aura of the famed streamlined Zephyr from the 1930s. Its production application only lasted one model-year.

The other downfall of this system was that there was no direct link between the letter slotting after the “MK” particle and the car’s place in the line-up or its function unlike imports, or even Cadillac. While the MKZ inherited the Z from its introduction as the Zephyr, it was the smallest Lincoln. For the others, the “S” was said at the time of its release to stand for “Sedan”, the “X” for “4×4/crossover”, the “T” for “Touring/Tourer”, etc. For the longest time, it was also rumoured that the MKC name would be used for a “MK-City” or “MK-Compact” car. Turns out it was not.

Lincoln-MKT_Concept_2008_800x600_wallpaper_24

The MKT, here in Concept form, could for all intents and purposes have been called MKW, as it was a crossover/wagon version of the MKS.

When all is said and done, the most telling sign of the nomenclature’s shortcomings is that when you search for a given Lincoln on Google, results and suggestions bring up all the others as well. So, clearly, they were following industry standards and trends at the time, but it seems that execution may have fallen short of what other manufacturers have been able to do.

Looking ahead

The implementation of that new nomenclature was never absolute, as the Navigator was able to keep its name up to this day without any rumours of an « MKN » rebadging ever really surfacing – but, the Navigator being the money-maker that it is, was it from the start an admission that it could have been detrimental to sales?

15LincolnNavigator_11_HR

The Navigator is the only model to have been renewed without the all-new design taking on the new naming scheme. Town Car was able to keep its storied name but was the same design all the way to 2011.

On top of its flaws, the MK-something scheme also hit a wall when it came to launching Lincoln in China, where customers are very much after Western flair, and would rather find famous nameplates on the back of Lincolns available there. Indeed, the first time Lincoln even mentioned reconsidering its naming convention was in late 2013 when it officially unveiled its plans to launch its Chinese operations.

John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy

“Our initial research in China was kind of stunning,” Fields said. “They knew Lincoln as a car brand because they remembered newsreels of presidents and movie stars riding in them.”

Beyond that long-term thinking, it seems that opening that discussion also lifted a weight within Lincoln’s own design studios : it is reported by FoMoCo CEO Mark Fields himself that this full-size concept (which had been in the works for a while since the MKS has been due for a replacement for a while now) was going nowhere in terms of identity until designers were told it would be called the Continental. Here is what Mark Fields had to say :

“The first couple of themes weren’t lighting us on fire,” Fields recalled. “When we decided to call it Continental and we told the team that in a design review, everybody’s head snapped. They said, ‘OK, now we have our North Star on this.’”

With the release of the Continental Concept and recent declarations from executives at the New York Auto Show, it seems the entire nomenclature is now up for a review. Can we expect all new models to be rolled out with a proper name? That would save the cost and complication of a mid-cycle rebadging likely to confuse customers, and would save some well-deserved buzz for each new release. At the same time, the MKC and MKX crossovers are brand new, so can we expect crossovers to, maybe, retain their name all the way to the end of their product cycle?

2016-lincoln-mkx-16_1600x0w

The all-new MKX has just been revealed, and it will probably live its product cycle keeping its MK name while the brand’s next vehicles get a proper name back as they are unveiled.

As executives noted, it’s also for Lincoln an easy way to go against the current and stand-out from the get go in name recognition and brand awareness, which are prerequisites to sales. And on that note, if you asked people at the New York Auto Show to name Lincoln’s flagship, Continental would pop up far more often than, say, CT6 for Cadillac or Q70 for Infiniti. And to go full circle on the initial idea of emphasizing the brand before the model, I am pretty sure that at this point, « E-Class » has become a legacy name of its own and that actual model names within this class are but trim levels to most prospects.

20140719_161208

Photo taken on the streets of a vintage Lincoln Continental, a car recognizable by almost anybody, in part because of its name.

Again, for once, news of the rebirth of the Continental nameplate was welcomed with unanimous support, from pundits and fans alike. And that before even considering the car’s own merits! That alone is proof enough that people want Lincoln’s famous heritage on display, and not what was often called the « alphabet soup ». That was but confirmed when outlets reported revelations from executives on the showroom floor that the message was received loud and clear.

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One response to “What’s in a name: a look back at the “MK” naming scheme

  1. I had a ’77 Town car i really enjoyed driving with the family in the mid 90’s when gas was cheap. Also had a ’79 Mark 5 that was lots of fun with its big sunroof. Was in the process of restoration but needed to sell. Loved the styling they had with chrome and all. New cars seem to be throw away cars after ten years with so many electronic issues. It would be fun to see a car that you would
    want to hang on to for your kids to inherit but i suppose that goes against the grain of the industry. Looking forward to seeing the new cars.

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