Aviator struggles to take off
Sunday, May 25, 2003
Lincoln pushes mid-size SUV sales with ads, overnight test drives, re-engineered features
By Mark Truby / The Detroit News
DEARBORN -- When Lincoln unveiled its new Aviator late last year, critics were impressed but buyers were mostly jilted by the $40,000-plus sport utility vehicle.
Early sales were alarmingly slow. The advertising message lacked pizzazz. The price tag induced sticker shock.
Some shoppers complained the Aviator was just a smaller clone of its popular stablemate, the Lincoln Navigator.
Inside Ford, worries grew that the Aviator was destined to join the sad pantheon of Detroit-made automotive flops.
But the Lincoln marketing team is not letting the Aviator go down without a fight. The division has launched a creative, multi-faceted effort to resuscitate the SUV that is beginning to gain some traction.
The success of the Aviator is crucial to Lincoln's effort to become profitable again and halt a long sales slide. The new sales push also will go a long way in determining whether Ford will continue to build the SUV after it closes a plant in St. Louis that produces the Aviator. The St. Louis factory is expected to be shuttered as early as 2005 as part of an aggressive turnaround plan at Ford.
After selling fewer than 1,500 Aviators in each of the first three full months on the market -- less than half of the initial sales goal -- Lincoln sold 2,245 of the SUVs in March and 2,463 in April. While not spectacular, the numbers represent a significant turnaround.
To be sure, Ford Motor Co.'s domestic luxury brand is pouring on the rebates to enhance Aviator prospects -- zero percent financing for 60-month loans or $3,000 cash discounts.
Lincoln also is piloting a creative overnight test drive program, launching a new series of ads and working to re-engineer some of the vehicle's features.
"It's difficult to turn things around after a bad start, but not impossible," said Art Spinella, vice president of CNW Marketing/Research Inc.
Spinella cited the Cadillac Escalade SUV, which started poorly but went on to sales success.
The Aviator is a luxury SUV built from the same basic chassis and frame as the popular Ford Explorer. It features a robust 302-horsepower engine and an interior swathed in leather and accented in satin nickel and inlaid bird's-eye walnut.
But Lincoln missed the mark in some key areas. The Aviator's exterior is almost identical to the hulking Navigator. If the Navigator is the Dr. Evil of SUVs, Aviator is Mini Me.
Dealers say the lofty price tag is another problem. Aviator starts at $40,000 and tops out at $50,000.
"It cost too much, and there are no good lease programs available because of poor residual value," said Casey Jackson, owner of Spartan Lincoln Mercury in Morrow, Ga. "The vehicle itself is very impressive, but for the same money you can almost buy a Navigator."
Making matters worse, Aviator is trying to squeeze into a market segment that's as crowded as Times Square at rush hour.
Formidable competitors in the mid-size luxury SUV segment include the Lexus GX 470, the Acura MDX and BMW X5.
Still, Lincoln has found that if prospective buyers test drive the Aviator, they are likely to buy one. So in San Antonio, Lincoln is piloting an overnight test drive program. Dealers are not only loaning potential buyers an Aviator overnight, they also give them a $100 voucher coupon for a dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and professionally detail their current vehicle.
"We give them a night on us," said Mike Crowley, Lincoln's marketing manager.
About a month ago, Lincoln Mercury also started a series of regional ads featuring all three of the division's SUVs: the Mercury Mountaineer, Lincoln Aviator and Lincoln Navigator.
The campaign -- devised under new Lincoln Mercury President Darryl Hazel -- is a U-turn from the division's long-time policy of not combining Lincoln and Mercury brand marketing.
"It's a new strategy for us, a change from the prior management," Crowley said.
The combined advertising will save money and will help customers understand where each SUV fits into Lincoln Mercury's lineup.
"It tells buyers we have an SUV for everybody," Jackson said.
The downside: the spots could hinder efforts to position Lincoln and Mercury as separate and distinct brands.
"We will closely monitor the perceptions of the brand," Crowley said.
Trying to drum up some buzz, Lincoln also is promoting Aviator at air shows as part of a promotional tie-in with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
In the meantime, Lincoln is trying to get more mileage out of the raft of positive reviews the Aviator has garnered from automotive critics. In full page ads in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other publications, Lincoln reprinted excerpts from glowing reviews.
Lincoln's efforts to revive Aviator, however, are going beyond pure marketing efforts. The brand's product engineers are busy trying to add features that could attract new buyers.
Shoppers have been turned off because Aviator doesn't offer nifty gizmos found on the Navigator -- such as a power rear liftgate and electronically controlled third-row seats that fold flat into the floor.
"The customer expects to see certain features," said George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst. "The lack of those features is likely holding Aviator back."
Lincoln is studying whether to add a power folding third-row seat to the Aviator.
"It's a very popular feature," Ford spokesman Todd Nissen said. "We are seriously looking at it for the Aviator."
(Photo)2003 Lincoln Aviator
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....