A List Mercury Didn’t Want to Be On

“You’ve got to put Mercury on your list.” Not any more.

“You’ve got to put Mercury on your list.”

Not any more. Ford announced that it will end production of Mercury models in the fourth quarter. Mercury is the third child in the Ford family, coming to be after both Ford and Lincoln. And it was treated like one in the press release that included the announcement of its forthcoming demise: It got its dubious due in the second paragraph, after the opener:

“DEARBORN, Mich., June 2, 2010 – Ford Motor Company will expand and enhance its Lincoln brand lineup with seven all-new or significantly refreshed vehicles in the next four years as part of an aggressive growth plan focused on standout product design, class-leading technology and new powertrains – all aimed at competing with Cadillac and Lexus in North America.”

Oh, and did we mention we’re shutting down Mercury?

 

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According to James J. Flink in The Automobile Age (The MIT Press), the original role of Mercury, which debuted with the 1939 Mercury 8 with its 95-hp V8, was “to compete with Pontiac and Dodge.”

Now Pontiac is gone and Dodge has had the Ram truck models excised from its portfolio, leaving it with the Caravan minivan as its volume product.

 

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According to Ford, of its 16% market share Mercury accounts for only 0.8 percentage points. But let’s look at some other numbers.

Last year, which wasn’t a good year by any measure, Mercury sold a grand total of 92,299 units. So far this year it has sold 41,680 units, which is an 11.6% increase over where it was last year at this time.

Would it be churlish to point out that last year Lincoln moved a grand total of 82,847 cars and trucks, nearly 10,000 fewer than its sibling, and that so far this year it has sold 37,444 units, which is not only fewer than Mercury, but its percentage gain over last year’s performance is up 11.5%, trailing Mercury? Maybe

Of course, the margins on Lincolns are undoubtedly higher which necessitates Ford Motor keeping it rather that assigning it to the list of lost brands.

And the problem with Mercury is something that Ford Motor created for itself by building cars and trucks that are nothing more than badge-engineered versions of Ford models. Presently the Mercury lineup consists of the Milan, which is a Ford Fusion with lipstick; the Mariner, which is a Ford Escape with high-heeled hiking boots; the Grand Marquis, which is a grande dame version of the Crown Victoria; and the Mountaineer, which is a product in search of its faded glory.

What has been special about Mercury? What does Mercury stand for? What does Mercury compete with? (One might answer that last question with “Buick,” but the folks at Buick imagine they compete with Lexus. I wouldn’t be feeling too good if I was working at Buick right now, because the rationalization for its existence that is often cited—“It is important in China”—doesn’t seem all that compelling in the U.S., and it should be noted that the sales delta between Buick and Cadillac sales are a whole lot closer than Mercury and Lincoln, with so far Buick selling 56,899 units and Cadillac 52,997.)  What is a Mercury?  Well, the answer to that is “Gone.”

There is certainly much to be said about focus. And that’s what Ford Motor is doing. But the folks in Dearborn ought to also keep in mind that it is also about innovation and, critically, differentiation. Let’s face it: the Lincoln MKZ isn’t that far from a Ford Fusion, either.

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