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By 2g1c2 girls 1 cup

Bloomberg is reporting today that Ford plans to kill the Mercury brand – again. At least twice in the last decade, Mercury was on the chopping block, only to be given a stay of execution. The Ford family, specifically Elena Ford, has vetoed efforts by management to kill off the brand in the past.

Mercury was created in 1939 by Edsel Ford as a bridge between the mainstream Ford brand and the luxury Lincoln brand. Mercury products have lately been nothing more than Fords with more features and (slightly) fancier styling. Mercury’s present lineup shows this: Milan (Fusion twin), Mariner (Escape), Mountaineer (Explorer) and Grand Marquis (Crown Victoria). The last time Mercury had a unique vehicle (not shared with a Ford) was in 2002, when Mercury last sold the Cougar and the Villager minivan (though the Villager was engineered by, and shared with, Nissan).

1967 Mercury Cougar

1967 Mercury Cougar

In 1999, Ford planned to kill the Mercury brand by phasing out the lineup and eventually “encouraging” Mazda dealers and Lincoln dealers to dual with the other brand. They saw Mercury sales dwindling and Mazda sales going in the opposite direction. The plan was set, and the future product (“cycle”) plan was modified to reflect Mercury’s demise. Then the company got cold feet. A powerful combination of the Ford family and Lincoln Mercury dealers killed the plan before it really got going. The Ford family opposed it due to sentimental reasons (the tragic story of Edsel and Mercury being his creation was a big part), while the dealers didn’t like the idea of selling Japanese cars.

1982 Mercury Capri RS

1982 Mercury Capri RS

Many at Ford had already mentally written off the Mercury brand, and the reversal left Mercury without a plan for future products. Instead of taking the opportunity to “reboot” the brand into something other than fancy Fords, the company went back to the old ways and hastily threw some money at Fords with different lights and grilles. It was a self-fulfilling, defeatist attitude that went something like this, “Mercury sales suck, so let’s not spend too much money on Mercury products. That way, we won’t have to sell too many to get a return on the money.” Of course, spending very little on badge-engineering ensured the sales would suck, and the geniuses who made the decision patted themselves on the back for not spending the money (“See, I told you the sales would suck – aren’t you glad we didn’t spend the money?”).

Ford missed an opportunity to have its cake and eat it too. Ford had (and still does have) wonderful products in overseas markets around the world that it could have used to give Mercury unique products without the cost of developing a stand-alone product for Mercury. Ford could have assembled a collection of Ford’s European and Asian products, including some vehicles that Mazda sold in Japan, but not in North America. There would have been costs associated with homologation and importation, but nowhere near the costs of engineering a new product from scratch.

1955 Mercury Montclair

1955 Mercury Montclair

Again in 2005, Ford looked at eliminating Mercury. Detailed analyses of sales volume and profit & loss were presented to senior management, but again, the idea was crushed. There were fears of Lincoln Mercury dealer profits and the heavy hand of the Ford family was in the middle somewhere.

Since Alan Mulally showed up, Mercury has seen its lineup shrink to the present 4 vehicles mentioned above. And now Ford is apparently going through the same exercise again. So what’s different this time? Mulally and the cash situation are the major ones. Mulally isn’t so tied to the past and will make the decision that is best for the company, regardless of sentiment. Also, while Ford is doing better than just about anybody in the industry right now (though that isn’t saying much), they still have a tremendous amount of debt to consider, and cash is tight.

1971 Mercury Cyclone GT

1971 Mercury Cyclone GT

What about the dealers? The Lincoln Mercury dealers have made the argument in the past that they wouldn’t have enough volume to survive if Ford pulled the plug on Mercury. Is that still true? Lincoln has, arguably, its best lineup ever right now, but is it enough to keep the dealer body healthy? They have 6 vehicles for sale (MKZ, MKX, MKS, MKT, Navigator and Town Car), but the Town Car goes away completely after the 2011 model year. That leaves 5 mostly alphabet soup names and a giant SUV. For the dealers’ sake, I hope that the pipeline is full of new Lincolns and freshenings of existing models.

Even assuming that Ford can keep the dealers happy and profitable with just Lincoln, does Mercury really need to go the way of Plymouth, Saturn, Pontiac, et al? I have the same argument against pulling the Mercury plug as I did with Pontiac. Why pull it? Mercury could remain as a niche product, with maybe 2-3 vehicles. If Ford really does have a plan for Lincoln, the dealers wouldn’t be reliant on the Mercury volume, so there would be no need to have a full lineup of Mercurys. Engineering/R&D are only approved for programs that can pay back the investment anyway, so that wouldn’t be an issue. There is already a distribution network, so that’s OK too. Assembly plant capacity could be an issue, but if Ford can utilize existing platforms for Mercury (without relying on badge engineering), it should be able to use existing plant capacity as well. The only other consideration is advertising. In the auto industry, most advertising is for vehicles, not brands. There would only need to be advertising for the vehicles that you are offering, and everybody knows what a Mercury is already, so no cost to “launch” the brand.

1963 Mercury Marauder

1963 Mercury Marauder

I know this isn’t a strong argument for why Ford should keep Mercury, but an argument for why they shouldn’t feel the need to kill it. The Mercury brand has survived 70+ years. It would be a shame to allow it to die now for the wrong reasons.

That’s what I think – how about you? Please leave your comments below!

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  1. Good post Slandy.

    I’ve been waiting for this headline ever since I learned they killed the Sable. I agree with your argument – they are better with Mercury than without. The MKZ and Milan may be the same platform but are very different vehicles. Bringing in some overseas cars (as a Mercury, not as Merkur) would provide some added zing.

    Comment by jmungar — 28 May 2010 @ 9:24 am

  2. If Mercury Goes, Should Lincoln be Far Behind?…

    Humor me for a minute. Ford Motor Company suits and PR have been denying the Mercury division’s impending death since Oldsmobile, and even Plymouth, was still around. And like Pontiac as well, Mercury comes from that quaint era in American automobiled…

    Trackback by — 29 May 2010 @ 3:01 am

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