For years now, Lexus has stared enviously at Mercedes-Benz, hoping to emulate its success. Tired of second fiddle, is ‘the gentleman’ flinging his values on the fire?
Last year, a former Browns Lane insider described the advent of the 1989 Lexus LS 400 to me as being “chilling in every respect”. One can be equally sure that in Munich, Ingolstadt and Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, the intake of breath was no less sharp and the expletives no less lurid. That Lexus subsequently failed to achieve global cut-through over the intervening decades remains a matter for historians and academics to pick over, because the auguries at the time suggested Toyota would annihilate the opposition.
In today’s luxury car market, given the overall excellence of the major players, technical parity is something of a given and over-delivery (as was LS 400’s wont) is not rewarded. Image is all. It is here above all that brand-Lexus appears to have stumbled. In a recent interview with Automotive News, Lexus’ former International President, Tokuo Fukuichi made the following statement; “When you’re stuck in traffic, people look at the driver in the Mercedes as a person who has made it in society, and they will envy you. We haven’t fully achieved that compared with the German three.”
This statement is worth unpicking since it confirms Lexus and their Toyota masters are no longer interested in pursuing perfection, as their advertising tagline once stated; today’s aim being considerably more earthbound in nature. ‘Experience Amazing’, after all, speaks to an altogether different set of standards and values. Of course anyone who purchases a luxury car runs the gauntlet of others looking on with a spectrum of emotions ranging from apathy at one end, through to outright derision on the other; envy being only one of the stopping off points in between.
But so convinced is Fukuichi of the necessity to sex-up Lexus’ image, he is handing over the reins to former deputy, Yoshihiro Sawa and taking on the mantle of Chief Branding Officer. According to the report, his new remit will give him decision-making ability over all matters of product planning or technology that pertains to brand, in addition to those of advertising, marketing and PR. His new role which also encompasses advanced design, sees him having complete control of Lexus’ image and identity, for good or ill.
Automotive News suggests Lexus has not aided its cause in the past by offering models in some markets that differed little from their Toyota counterparts. Even the fabled LS 400 was offered in its home market as the Toyota Celsior and (allegedly) didn’t receive Lexus branding until 2006. Furthermore, the US market stalwart ES model made little attempt to disguise its Camry origins, while top-line GX and LX SUV’s are manifestly Land-Cruiser based re-workings. Greater differentiation will hitherto take place between Toyota branded products and those with the L-Finesse logo, and not before time some would suggest. Fukuichi’s stated aim being to ringfence certain features and technologies and make them Lexus-specific to help the marque gain a similar product halo to that of its German rivals.
Another issue facing Toyota is that Lexus’ vital US sales position has been eroded by the rise of Hyundai on one hand and the German big three on the other, who remain locked in a bitter battle for market supremacy. Lexus have lost 23% in volume over the first two months of 2017, faced with Mercedes’ unceasing product roll-out, aggressive pricing and bewildering level of derivations and engine options. Heritage too plays a role – despite falling some way short of their respective brand high water marks, the Germans trade on long-established marque values.
Let’s examine Lexus’ new marketing strategy, shall we? At first sight it appears to consist mostly of fluff. On one hand we have a carbon-fibre hulled luxury speedboat concept powered by twin 2UR-GSE units from the newly introduced RC F model. Complementing this is a rather foolish looking spaceship set to appear in an upcoming science fiction movie of some sort. Fukuichi himself appears to have been watching youtube videos of Dr. Zetsche a little too assiduously, turning up at a recent model launch sporting what Automotive news describes as a loud pink polka-dot tie and a shirt with a black and white tablecloth patterned collar. Nothing wrong with a bit of sartorial colour of course, but one is tempted to ask if this is how Tokuo-san puts the ‘Wacky’ into ‘Doki’?
However, Fukuichi goes on to make a genuinely chilling statement pertaining to where Brand-Lexus goes now. “Lexus’ strengths such as quality and service can’t be fully appreciated unless you’re in the car driving. Better quality isn’t that necessary. Better brand power is.” Now, it’s possible to read this (at least) two ways. One is that Lexus’ quality is a given and while it will be maintained, the focus will be on achieving cut-through by aggressive marketing. Another, rather more disturbing one is that Fukuichi is making a similar statement to that of Dr. Zee a number of years ago when he stated Mercedes-Benz customers were no longer prepared to pay a premium for quality. Has Toyota concluded that they are wasting their time producing high quality products when their rivals are doing considerably better by offering less?
What’s become obvious is that the customer increasingly neither knows nor cares about qualities like engineering depth or peerless attention to detail. They simply want the huddled masses to stare at them in palpable envy. Mercedes-Benz discovered this some years ago, hence Zee, Gordo, the Sensual Purity® gravy boat and all who sail in her. Toyota wants a piece of that action and is not just changing course but changing culture to achieve it. The fact that Lexus’ latter-day styling ‘reinvention’; a move which has manifestly failed to positively alter perceptions was on Mr. Fukuichi’s watch is of course immaterial. In marketing we trust.
That former Jaguar insider described LS 400 as a ‘real wake up call’. Today it appears that Lexus is waking up, but to dreamscape or nightmare?