Between the Lines: Lexus' F Ad

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

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]

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Sep 16, 2007

    "The market doesn’t define it that way. ..." I think Lexus buyers, for the most part, do. Whether they buy a coupe, sedan, SUV, etc. they are thinking of luxury in what I've called the classic (traditional Caddy) mode. Not performance. "The poster Chris above is but one example of a Lexus buyer who defies your definition. When you consider the age and demographic of Cadillac buyers, they tend to skew older and poorer than the German and Japanese luxury marques. There just isn’t much cross-shopping between Cadillac and any of the imported brands in this segment. Lexus is an up and comer, Cadillac a distant also ran that is basically not even a factor." I'm sure someone wants a Ferrari pickup, but that doesn't mean it should happen. Sure Caddy has customers who are older and poorer. That's the result of relentless downmarketing. Caddy is almost meaningless as a luxury brand (or any other kind of brand). No, there isn't much cross shopping between the German cars and Caddy. There used to be, in the 70s, but no more. All I'm saying is Lexus customers just want a quite comfortable reliable luxury car - most of them. They are attracted by the same qualities Caddy used to possess - smoothness, grace, and "The Standard of the World". Most are not looking for a car that handles curves as well as an AMG. "Lexus gains many a sale from those who’d probably like to own a German car but are afraid to, given the service and reliability compromises that entails. There comes a point that many will trade that seat-in-the-pants intangible goodness for a lower repair bill and better treatment." In other words, performance really isn't their top priority. That's probably true even for most of the people who still do choose to go with a German car. "Here’s how you know that BMW and Mercedes are the cachet leaders — they are the benchmarks who everyone else tries to emulate. The 3-series is THE benchmark in the near-luxury segment, bar none, without a doubt. The S-class is the benchmark large sedan, the one that the LS aspires to be." Unless reliability is one of your primary concerns, then it Lexus that becomes the benchmark. The Germans would do well to emulate the leader before they loose market share the way the D3 have to the Asians. "Let’s put all of this another way: Let’s suppose that you are in charge of Lexus. As you look back over the past two decades, you are pleased at your ability to grow sales, but want to tackle the cachet problem and become a taste maker who builds benchmark automobiles. The question becomes: How do you accomplish this?" If I were in charge I'd say "whoa, who put this on my plate, I didn't order this." My company is already building the benchmark for quality and reliability. I'm quite content to continue to improve while the Germans figure out how to build a reliable car. I do like the sales graphs, and I'm reluctant to screw around with a winning formula. Cachet is something my brand already has, albeit of a different sort, or if it doesn't have it, then evidently it doesn't need it. When the graph shows me a serious decline in sales, then I'll start panicking and flailing about with a different product mix. For now, I'm quite happy to have everyone in NA and incresingly in other parts of the world think of my car as the standard for classic luxury. "Every other successful luxury marque has gone about this the same way: It creates a lust factor for its products. You can go nuts with the walnut and leather, but at the end of the day, that lust will come from some combination of drivetrain and handling prowess, because that’s where the intangible je ne sais quoi of such cars comes from, even for the buyer who tends to drive at 2/10ths all day long." I respectfully disagree. I don't think most Lexus customers care one whit about drivetrain/handling prowess. If they really did care, it's very difficult to see why they aren't in a Bimmer. To put it another way, BMW and MB, and Audi all give their customer plausible deniability. What I mean is the customer can pretend they didn't buy the car for snob appeal, but rather for it's driving dynamics - even though most of them don't really give a damn about how many g's the car pulls on the skidpad or how well it slaloms through the S turns. Most will find their greatest cornering challenge comes when trying to pull into a parking space. Lexus buyers are honest about what they want - luxury, reliability, and the snob appeal appropriate to the price of the car. They don't need plausible deniability. That's why Lexus doesn't need the F car. There is a difference between evolving and screwing with the basic concept. I don't know that I'd classify the German cars as successful, given that they are loosing share to Lexus. Lexus should just keep eating the German's lunch and not try to emulate them.

  • Johnson Johnson on Sep 16, 2007
    kazoomaloo: By introducing this new and radically different line they are going to weaken the brand because it will no longer be a crystalline, tightly-focused brand; it will be changed and stretched to encompass entirely new brand traits. It might be a good business decision, but it is a bad BRANDING decision. That is your opinion and nothing more. In due time, we will see if it is "bad branding" or not, and who here is ultimately right or wrong. Ryan has nit the nail on the head with his points.
  • 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
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