By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Toyota’s luxury-themed division, Lexus, has decided that it wants to join the ranks of the hip and cool. Not content with its bland-tastic, “the cars for people who don’t care about cars” image, Lexus is now going after the young, influential, hip and affluent crowd with a totally different marketing direction and a new brand campaign, complete with a new advertising theme line, “Amazing in Motion” featuring nine-foot mannequin-like puppets (ugh).
Akio Toyoda, scion of the founding family and the guy who’s now running the show at the global automotive giant, is spurring this new directional shift. Toyoda is absolutely convinced that by turning over a new, youthful and hipper leaf, Lexus is just a heartbeat away from achieving automotive greatness - complete with a cool new wrapper.
We should all know the Lexus story by now. Toyota, eager to get a piece of the American luxury market, went after the leaders at the time - Mercedes-Benz and BMW – with a dead-nuts imitation that more closely resembled the Mercedes than a BMW. It was 1989 and no one really gave them a chance, but Lexus redefined what the luxury experience could be at the dealership level, and even though the car – the LS 400 – was a rolling monument to tedium with marginal appeal it didn’t matter. Lexus built one of the most successful luxury brands in the U.S. market purely based on a level of customer service that up to that point was unheard of.
But as successful as that brand launch was, the cars continued to be somnolent sleds, vanilla-themed luxury coaches that were oddly detached from the act of driving. And that was fine, for a while at least. But the competition got a lot better, especially with Audi turning up the wick and even Cadillac manufacturing a new brand aura for itself, and even though Lexus was delivering sales numbers that were still formidable, the brand seemed tired and predictable.
So forays into the performance arena were made, with a line of performance cars developed dubbed “F” to suggest that Lexus could play in the S (Audi), AMG (Mercedes), M (BMW), and V (Cadillac) high-performance luxury game with a lineup of performance models of its own. That didn’t really work either. Sure, they found some customers for these cars, but the brand image didn’t move one iota.
So now Akio Toyoda, the guy who flaunts his gear-headed-ness like a badge of honor, is determined that the Lexus brand image will go from one of purveyors of somnolent sleds to purveyors of the hip and hot.
He turned up the wick with the LFA supercar and now Lexus is poised to introduce the LFA-influenced LF-LC concept to the U.S. market, a car that torched the auto shows with its sheer design presence. And he’s going to use those two vehicles – and their bold new design language – to fuel a renaissance for the brand in terms of image and prestige.
Oh, if it were that easy.
There aren’t enough trendy hipster balls like the one Toyoda staged in the Chelsea district of New York last week for the “new” Lexus that will make a difference. Sure, the design-themed events, those that focus on artists and creative movers and shakers to the detriment of the actual products are fun and get a nanosecond of coverage from the hip-hot media, but they’re like so much marketing cotton candy, offering you a taste that vaporizes before you even have time to think about what just happened. And does anyone in the room (other than the auto journalists invited to cover such events) take anything substantive away about the brand other than it was a good party? Please.
The key word here for Mr. Toyoda is aspirational, which has become the hottest word in auto company marketing circles, especially for the assorted brand champions who aren’t even close to having a whiff of understanding what it really means. He wants Lexus to become a brand that people aspire to, which is exactly the same thing that everyone else is saying to themselves at the other car companies.
I can tell you what this talk sounds like in the marketing department at your average Belchfire Motors (feel free to insert your favorite car company here): “We want to be hot. We want to be hip. We want to be the brand that everyone talks about first. And we want to be different from all the rest. We want consumers to love us, not because we’re eminently likable, but because we do it better than anyone else.”
How is Lexus going to be different? Well, let’s see, by being “Amazing in Motion"? Uh, maybe, if the planets align just so and everything falls into place in a miracle of marketing that stuns the automotive world and ends up rewriting the history books. (But then again that’s like saying Alfa Romeo is going to be selling 75,000 units here in the U.S. market by 2014. Oh, wait a minute, that’s another column.)
"I will personally drive Lexus forward with beautifully designed product that is fun to drive," Toyoda told the crowd last Friday night in New York, according to Automotive News.
Really, Akio, you are personally going to drive Lexus forward? Uh-oh. Where have we heard this before? Sorry to remind you, Akio, but this business is littered with broken-down executives who insisted that they were going to personally change the market or change a brand’s image overnight.
And unfortunately for Mr. Toyoda I can say with a fair amount of certainty that it ain’t happening. At least not anytime soon. It has taken Audi fifteen years of high-level image wrangling to get where they are today and Cadillac is now in its fourteenth year of rejuvenation and they still have miles to go. So if Mr. Toyoda thinks this is going to be a finger-snap transformation, he is going to be bitterly disappointed.
Besides, chasing youth and hipness for an automaker is like chasing candy-striped unicorns, especially when the young and hip can smell image wrangling from a mile away. (And everyone’s doing it, too, including Nordstrom. The ultra-conservative, upscale retailer is attempting to reinvent itself with a new digital campaign "YOUphoria" designed to make the store hipper - and different - to young consumers. Sound familiar? You can see it here, here and here.)
There’s an old auto industry adage that goes like this: You can sell a young person’s car to the older folk, but you can’t sell an old person’s car to the young.
Here’s a tip, Akio: Build great cars. There's no magically hip bullet at your disposal.
And if you want to really reinvent the Lexus image, buckle-up and settle in for the long haul.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The Lexus "Amazing in Motion" robotic mannequins, coming to a TV screen near you.