Between the Lines: Lexus' F Ad
During my brief stint in British advertising, I had the distinct pleasure of working with one Paul Harvey Douglas. Paul was the world’s best headline writer. He could distill an entire advertising campaign down to a single sentence, a phrase, a word. I wonder what PHD would have made of Lexus' ad for its new F-Series automobiles. “What is F?” the two-page Autoweek center spread asks. “F is everything you thought we weren’t,” it answers. I could almost hear Paul’s derisive snort. “F means their brand’s in ‘effing trouble,” he would have pronounced. Too right, mate.
Let’s start by parsing the imagery. I have no idea what the smoke drifting through the heart of the “teaser” ad is supposed to mean. It’s not, as savvy enthusiasts might expect, tire smoke. It looks more like cigarette smoke. More specifically, advertising cigarette smoke. You know: the kind of photo-shopped psychedelic smouldering that’s been carefully crafted to hide nightmarish images that stimulate your subconscious desire to, uh, smoke.
After copious quantities of Clos De Bois, I can make out a dragon’s head, a couple of demonic faces and a Toucan-beaked hoodie-wearing beastie. And I feel a strange desire to fire-up a doobie. Anyway, the background above the horizontal plume is elegantly pin-striped, like a City gentleman’s business suit. The background below is jet black. As “F” is Lexus’ new performance sub-brand, the change is a subconscious signal that Lexus is about to offer both baby Bentleys and supersonic stealth bombers.
So here we have an ad that clearly signals Toyota’s intention to take the idea of Lexus as provider of floaty-drifty sarcophagi-on-wheels to America’s well-moneyed set and burn it in the same furnace the Vatican uses when the Cardinals get together to elevate one of their own to God’s CEO. Presumably, when you see the white [demon-filled] smoke rising heavenwards, you’ll know Lexus has been reborn, ready to kick some major league sports sedan ass.
Why? Why does Lexus need to build a sports or even a sporty car? I asked this question before, after attempting to cane the thoroughly unrewarding IS 350. I’ll ask it again. How many customers walk into a Lexus dealer thinking right, THIS is the place where I’ll finally find a car that’ll blow the doors off an M3 on the Nürburgring! That’s a bit like rocking-up to your local Volkswagen dealer looking for a $95k luxury sedan. Or heading over to a Porsche dealer for an SUV. Or journeying to a Chevy dealer for a $60k sports car.
Don’t get me wrong: those are all wonderful cars. And I know Mercedes’ in-house performance division sells more $100k+ automobiles than any other manufacturer in the world. But that doesn’t mean they should. In fact, the fact that they have may have had a little something to do with the fact that Lexus’ LS is kicking Mercedes S-Class in the ass (the score so far: 23.4k to 17.5k).
I also understand that you kinda expect a Lexus to offer at least modicum of body control and a soupcon of genuine forward thrust. But that’s because you’re a pistonhead. For the vast majority of Lexus buyers, it’s all about rock solid build quality, sumptuous materials, tomb-like silence, obsequious service, snob appeal and mindless wafting. IF the average Lexus customer thought about it, they’d probably think that the idea of a sporty Lexus is… confusing. And that’s because it is.
In fact, let’s say you weren’t a pistonhead and didn’t know that F is supposed to be the new M. If you read the AutoWeek ad headline literally– “F is everything you thought we weren’t”– you’d have to think a Lexus F is going to be cheap, nasty, loud, uncomfortable and unreliable. And that would make the new F Lexus’ evil twin. You don’t have to Google Garth Knight to know how THAT plot line turns out.
In short, the whole Lexus F thing is what branding experts would call The Mother of All Stupid Ideas. And there’s only one reason why a brand so strong my appliance installer called my new Kitchen Maid the “Lexus of dishwashers” would want to launch an anti-brand brand: boredom. I firmly believe that halo cars, sporting sub-brands and wacky brand digressions are simply a way for bored executives to avoid facing the long, tough, often dull slog that good branding– and product development– requires.
If Toyota wanted to build Porsche-killers, it should have created a new brand. Of course, Lexus’ decision to take its eye firmly off the ball is good news for its competition. Well, it would be if the other luxury automobile brands weren’t making the same mistakes: too many models at too many price points, too many genres, conflicting subdivisions, etc. At this point, Ferrari, Maserati and Bentley are the ones to watch. At the moment, they’re everything you think they are.
[Listen to branding guru Al Reis discuss Lexus' F below]
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- Doug brockman hardly. Their goals remain to punish us by mandating unsafe unreliable unaffordable battery powered cars
- Lorenzo It looks like the curves are out and the boxy look is back. There's an upright windscreen, a decided lack of view obstructing swoop in the rear side panels, and you can even see out of the back window. Is Lexus borrowing from the G-Class Mercedes, or the Range Rover?
- Lorenzo Didn't those guys actually test drive cars? I was told that one drove like an old lady, another like a maniac, and the third like a nervous middle aged commuter who needs to get to work on time and can't afford big repair bills, and they got together to pass judgement within their individual expertise. No?
- Lorenzo Aw, I don't care what they call the models, as long as they don't use those dots over the O's.
- The Oracle GM just seems hapless lately