Sexing-Up Lexus

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?

Image: lexus.com

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.

The apogee. LS 400. Image: carsguide.com.au

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.”

Lexus’ Tokuo Fukuichi. Image: Autonews

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.

Lexus ‘Skyjet’. Image: aquelamaquina.pt

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.

It’s all a bit Miami Vice isn’t it? Image: manofmany.com

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?

Image: motorian.kr

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?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Sexing-Up Lexus”

  1. Envy is one of the most useless emotions, both futile and destructive. I might look at an S Class sitting in traffic and think their seats are more comfortable than mine, their aircon is cooler, their insulation from those road drills is more effective, their speaker system is more embracing, they’re probably not having to watch their water temperature, etc, etc. But Envy – that bastard’s made it, they’ve got what I want – certainly not. If course that doesn’t mean that Fukuichi isn’t right anyway, but what a sad way to target your cars.

    The typical big Mercedes, BMW, Lexus owner of nearly 30 years ago isn’t today’s owner. Back then they’d have felt that speedboat and SF fantasies were beneath them (probably because the smug bastards thought they’d made it and everyone envied them) but today we all buy into that sort of thing. So maybe it will all work out fine for him.

  2. Toyota being Toyota, I don´t imagine they will let the quality of Lexus drop. What the chap is saying is that it is not enough. The loud styling is a reflection of the customers, it would seem. If you want quiet good taste you need to go down a notch and look at a well-specced car from a “mainstream” manufacturer. Skoda, VW, Ford, Opel and some others will provide a pleasantly presented car without any waki-doki or sensual purity. The only other option is a small Bentley, perhaps, in dark grey with a dark grey interior.

  3. The similarities to similar developments at Untertürkheim are striking. And the results almost as disappointing. Waku Wagener?

  4. Lexus in the new Oldsmobile. They once impressed with technical prowess but are now floundering with an image crisis, questionable design language and too little differentiation from lower cost platform-mates. Here in image conscience California one hears Lexus referred to as an “over priced Camry”. It’s a salesperson’s car, all flash and no substance.

    I would say the choice to not equip the 1st generation IS with a manual here in the US was a pivotal misstep in this market as it kept the obsessive enthusiasts away from an otherwise well balanced car from a brand that, at the time, had a positive image. We wanted to give it a chance but without the 3rd pedal the enthusiast avoided it and Lexus lost the chance to create brand evangelists. Who is that guy at the office that just won’t shut up about how much he loves his Lexus? I have yet to come across one in my office.

    Meanwhile Lexus goes on a marketing kick to “sex up” a brand that now has the oldest average buyer in the US?

    When Oldsmobile made a similar attempt at revitalization through ad copy during the early days of its fall, one of the poorest taglines they came up with was that the new Oldsmobiles were, “not your father’s Oldsmobile”. The derision that tag line invited was delicious and I expect no less from Lexus as they slide down to Acura also-ran status.

  5. The difference is that Lexus is run by Toyota and Olds by GM. Also, Toyota has two brands and GM (then) several. I agree that marketing isn’t the only answer – I doubt Lexus will be so careless as to let the quality drop. Despite my defence I don’t like a single car they make. I’d prefer an Acura.

    1. In claiming the difference is that Lexus is Toyota and Olds was GM are you implying that Toyota is incapable of error and failure? Or are you merely suggesting that Toyota won’t kill the brand off if they do falter? If it’s the latter I would agree. Even if sales lowered and stayed at Acura like levels I wouldn’t foresee them shutting the brand down. There’s money to be made in that area and not having a luxury brand would be limiting.

      Personally I also prefer Acura out of the Japanese luxury brands, Acura > Infiniti > Lexus.

    2. Toyota do make mistakes. They are seldom as egregious as GM´s. It´s a better run company. That means it avoids really great cars and really bad ones. Toyota won´t kill off Lexus. They´ve invested a lot in it over a long time and they need a premium brand. What they have discovered is that there are perhaps limits to how much quality you can pile onto a car. After a certain point no-one notices. It is a bit unfair or at least shows the irrationality of buyers that after nearly 30 years people view Lexus as an upstart. I´d suggest the decision to apply really wild styling is very wrong. It makes the cars look cheap. They need pure, classical beauty and consistency at this price level, a look that sits well with classical and modern architecture.

  6. The promotional shot of the LS400 in front of the Opera House brings back memories. When Lexus launched in Oz, one of their marketing gimmicks was to offer reserved parking spots, exclusively for Lexuses (or, as Partridge would have it, Lexii), underneath the Opera House stairs – drive in, park, walk up the stairs, into the lobby. I don’t know if this sold any cars but it seemed incredibly compelling to five-year-old Stradale, who was forced to walk the mile from the nearest bus stop whenever he visited the OH, owing to the decidedly plebeian, non-Lexus-owning status of his guardians. Ironically, the marketing bot who came up with the idea has almost certainly long since forgotten the campaign. Funny how some things register and other (infinitely more important) things don’t…

    As for the topic at hand, from a distant observer perspective I think virtually all of Lexus’ recent mis-steps revolve around styling rather than anything more deep-seated or inherent to the brand. No-one is saying that the essential quality of Lexus’ offerings has dropped off in any meaningful way. But while Lexus is reasonably well-represented in crossovers, every single one of them is hideous and exceedingly out-of-tune with the core aesthetic sensibilities that the brand has built up over quite a while now. I can see a significant proportion of their customers going elsewhere purely as a result of this.

    I also think it is important to emphasise geographic distinctions. Lexus might have (in fact, does have) an image problem in Europe but I don’t think that really applies here in the US, even (or perhaps especially) in California. The ES has only ever been a flash Camry (albeit generally quite a well-disguised one) and anyone who cares to know this fact, does. It’s never stopped their sales juggernaut to date. At least here on the east coast, Lexus is shorthand for ‘car owned by people that are doing pretty well in life’. Lexus might be self-conscious about its lack of history relative to the German marques but it does not by any means possess a brand image that causes people to look down on their owners. Certainly, if you are worried about that sort of thing, you can do a lot worse in this price range. The comments seem to me as if they are barking up the wrong tree but I would be surprised if their focus groups aren’t communicating what seems to be the core problem – disastrous styling. We’ll know if that’s the case, if the next generation of models is toned down and more restrained. But then again, it might take a while. It does seem like Toyota in general at the moment has taken a mighty dose of the Scorpio-brand brave pills previously found hanging around Cologne in the mid-1990s, when the blue oval made the mistake of thinking that ‘distinctive’ is synonymous with ‘appealing’.

    1. “The comments seem to me as if they are barking up the wrong tree” – edit to clarify, I mean Fukuichi’s comments.

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