RIP Mercury

The Ford Motor Company announced today that it would kill off its 71 year old Mercury auto brand.  That Mercury survived this long was due to the affection, according to press reports, for the brand by the Ford family.  But survival is much more important for the family than remembering Uncle Edsel’s quirkiness.

In its day Mercury served one useful purpose for Ford.  It was the skunk works where crazy ideas were tried.  Most failed but failing in Mercury was a lot better than failing in the mainline Ford brand.

When Cadillac overtook Lincoln Continental as the luxury brand of choice in post WWII, the only survivor was the Lincoln Town Car which survived for years as the limo of choice for the livery crowd.  The Mercury line consisted mostly of “me too” knock off versions of the Ford cars—only uglier so life support from the Ford family really was a heroic effort they just no longer can afford.

How do you kill a brand product?

You can do it one of several ways:

  • Ignore it and hope it just goes away
  • Wait for a big gaffe and kill it off in revenge
  • Starve it of investment until no one wants it
  • Ride it into the sunset until you just don’t sell enough to make it pay.

Ford has chosen the last strategy and that has now come to its logical conclusion.  No doubt there are die hard Mercury brand fans outs there but they are aging and soon won’t be able to drive even Miss Daisy any more.  Those that can will likely swallow their pride and buy a real Ford.

This teasing of Ford Motor Company is well intentioned.  They have survived their near death experience without government bailouts, bankruptcy and with the Family ownership still in tact.  No small feat in the Great Recession.

The new product strategy of narrowing the focus to the things Ford does best is a wise move that concentrates limited resources where they get the most bang for the buck.  Shedding the odd luxury collection of foreign auto brands Ford bought because—well, no one remembers why—freed resources to build truly world cars instead of unreliable versions of legacy cars.  That was also smart.

Now trimmer, tighter and more focused Ford has new models like Ford Fusion, a new Taurus, and soon Fiesta that people seem to like.  Add that to the truck of choice-F150 and the only thing left to fix is Explorer to round out the pony stable.  There are still a few left overs looking for a place in the barn.  Escape seems to have found it as a small hybrid, but my one remaining disappointment is Mustang.  It still has powerful performance but it looks a lot like Elvis toward the end—bloated, plastic with too many pounds around the middle to attract good looking women.

Even in a recession—perhaps especially then—product strategy matters more than ever to keep a brand fresh, focused and attractive. Brands are promises.  They are vivid images of romance, sensuality, power, ego and all the other secret vices that live in our heads and hearts.  When a product lives into its brand promise it is powerful.  When it betrays its brand promise it is toast.

Uncle Edsel’s workshop that became Mercury was its own version of a start-up in the Great Depression.  That it survived until the Great Recession 71 years later says more about Ford’s ability to take product risks in its mainline brand and get it right than anything else.