Lincoln: president, martyr and confused brand

When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton solemnly intoned: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

While his words were prescient, he didn’t go far enough. He should have added: “…and also to Corporate America.”

Lincoln is an industry. By one estimate more 16,000 books have been written about the 16th president. And when Daniel Day-Lewis duly lifted the Oscar for best actor the Academy Awards for his performance in the movie ‘Lincoln’, it was a fitting tribute to the actor and the man he portrayed.

Why this enduring fascination with Lincoln?

Lincoln’s life exemplifies what has been variously labeled “the American dream,” or “the right to rise” from rags to riches. In Lincoln’s case it is quite literally a rise from a log cabin to the White House.

His story is the embodiment of Lincoln brand: gritty determination, honesty, family values, unswerving belief in America and the basic rights of his fellow men.

His life offers a powerful testimony to dream. It is what ordinary Americans want to believe about social mobility and the opportunity to get ahead.

Lincoln print adShortly after Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar triumph, the Lincoln Financial Group of Philadelphia pounced on the opportunity to share in the reflected glory of his achievement. The company ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal.

“President Lincoln”, the copy reads, “your honesty, integrity and belief that all people should be in charge of their own destinies inspired the world. And, of course, one particular financial company.” No prizes for guessing which one.

So how is it, one is bound to ask, that a company can trade so fast and loose with the Lincoln name and drape itself in the borrowed imagery and character of a revered president?

It seems that Lincoln Financial Group has every right to do so. According to the company’s website, Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s only surviving son, gave the company’s founders permission to use his father’s name and likeness in July 1905, thereby legitimizing the qualities of integrity and honesty on which they intended to build their business.

And fair enough, you might think, for a company that espouses unflashy conservative virtues of financial prudence and personal responsibility. But given the license it seems to have with the Lincoln brand, the timid splat of a silhouette in the company’s logo is a terrible waste of an opportunity.

Lincoln Financial Group logo

Leave it to the professionals of Madison Avenue to squeeze every last drop out the Lincoln legacy, even when it’s scarcely warranted or effective.

In an attempt to revive the fortunes of its Lincoln brand, the Ford Motor Company is aiming to “return Lincoln to its original branding” and to “restore Lincoln to its luxury status.” Putting that in plainer English: Ford isn’t selling enough Lincoln cars because the brand has been neglected.

The Lincoln connection in this case is tenuous: The Lincoln Motor Company was formed in August, 1917 by Henry Leland, a former manager of the Cadillac division of General Motors, and his son, Wilfred. Leland named the new company after his hero for whom he cast a vote in 1864. Ford acquired Lincoln in 1922.

When Ford started selling off its Premier Auto Group brands—Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin—a few years ago, the primary aim was to raise cash before the financial storm that took down GM and Chrysler.

The plan was for Lincoln to be the division of Ford that sells luxury cars. But here, in 2013, with a depleted line-up and no signature model, a brand with little discernible character, and fierce competition for luxury car buyer’s attention from Lexus, Mercedes and BMW, what does a car company to do? It splurges on advertising.

Lincoln TV commercial
Click to play

In a nicely produced TV spot, “Introducing The Lincoln Motor Company,” the legend briefly appears, striding through the mists of time in a stovepipe hat, a frock coat swirling about him, before we are plunged into a showcase of futuristic technical wizardry.

Why would a 21st Century automaker want to invoke the spirit of a 19th Century president whose main mode of transport was a horse a carriage? And does today’s 40-year-old buyer really care if Lincoln made cool luxury cars before he was born—and then stopped making anything impressive at all?

Then there’s the name change to “Lincoln Motor Company”, a really feeble attempt to distance it from the Ford brand. It’s nothing more than a verbal sleight-of-hand; Lincoln is still a division of Ford. So, what’s it all about?

Certainly not brand building. This is an exercise in slick advertising to mask the absence of a brand. Ford needs to seriously rethink the Lincoln brand and recast it toward a clearly-defined market segment it can own.

And the Lincoln Financial Group really does need a new logo.

3 thoughts on “Lincoln: president, martyr and confused brand

  1. Michael Mason Dula

    Great article Alan.

    As a boy growing up in the great city of Lincoln, Nebraska, the image of our 16th President was all around me. Your thoughts remind us of the simple fact that behind the iconic name of Lincoln, stood an original, a real man who changed the course of our country and who to this day, endures through centuries as a heroic symbol of honesty and the conscience of a nation.

    Although we have all heard, “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” this doesn’t always sync well when brands take on the names of great icons. As you so demonstrate, we are left with facades and lofty promises that pale in comparison to the original.

    Nothing, beats an original.

  2. Pingback: Author branding: Honest Abe to Camelot | my lady's closet

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