Lexus F-Series: No Harm, No Foul
Bad branding was one of the prominent themes of TTAC’s 2006 Ten Worst Automobiles Today (TWAT) awards. No fewer than four vehicles on the list were derided for their corrosive effect on their brand. Ahead of our ’07 rundown (so to speak), RF has thrown a spear at Lexus’ decision to launch a performance-oriented F-Series sub-brand. The publisher claims a hot shit Lexus derivative is bad branding on wheels. So will a Lexus’ F-Series eventually find a place in TTAC’s Hall of Shame, or is it simply a case of line extension done right?
Some thinkers claim that brand identification is a survival instinct. “Don’t eat the yellow frogs-– you’ll die” has become “Drive a Trabant and you won’t make it to work and your family will starve to death.” In that sense, branding is a learned response that’s passed down through the generations. “Like my pa and his pa before him, I am a Chevy man. Son, urinate on that Tundra.” Taking it a step further, branding can help an individual pass on his or her genes. “Yeah, but he drives a Super Bee!”
Ultimately, branding is so strong because humans need it. The human body, especially the brain, tends toward efficiency. It’s much more efficient to remember a single brand icon– which represents impressions of quality, value and prestige– than keeping track of the thousands of variables that constitute a car. Some might call this intellectual laziness. I disagree. Analyzing every jot of information from the world around us is immobilizing. Utilizing well-developed brand constructs is a frequently reliable shortcut that allows us to think and act quickly.
People get grouchy when companies mess with well-established brand constructs because it disrupts the efficiency of our thinking. We rebel when Ford produces a pickup under the Lincoln moniker because it screws with our notion that Lincoln should make big cushy luxury cars. Brand confusion results when a product is marketed that’s so different from our on-board expectations that it defies logical accommodation. The abominable LT forces us to rethink our inner definition of what “Lincoln” means.
If car buying were coldly logical, everyone would be driving the equivalent of a fleet car. Halo cars work because they strengthen emotional bonds that people develop for vibrant brands. People tend to cheer for the success of brands they love the same way they root for their favorite sports team. They feel vindicated when their team wins and are disgusted when they lose.
Is a “Chevy guy” more likely to buy a Monte Carlo just because Chevy makes the Corvette? Absolutely! Okay, not the Monte Carlo. But they are more likely to stay within the Chevy family if they can’t afford the Vette because they are more likely to believe that the same engineering goodness that goes into the 505hp LS7 engine somehow blessed the lump of iron under their own car’s hood.
But Lexus is a brand without automotive quintessence. It lacks history. Its styling cues hail from images associated with other automaker’s cars. An open cockpit wood-spoked Lexus never raced over grassy lanes through the English countryside. JFK never rode in the back of a Lexus. No revered designers named Enzo or Ferry ever worked for Lexus creating disruptive technology innovations that fundamentally redefined what a car is.
Lexus’ place in the mind of buyers is dependent on its archetype: Mercedes. Lexus is the sensible alternative to German luxury cars for one-third less money, with Toyota reliability. By itself, Lexus doesn’t exist in terms of definitive automotive performance or ride characteristics. So the company can safely extend its line following successful Teutonic templates– as long as it adheres to price point and reliability expectations.
By producing sportier cars, Toyota’s premium brand isn’t experimenting with a F-atal F-oray downmarket. The highway is littered with the bones of companies that made this mistake (Cadillac, Jaguar and even Mercedes). Neither is the circle-L making a play up market into exotic car pricing. Volkswagen illustrated the F-olly of that thinking. While I have not seen pricing on the F-Series, I expect is will be a F-raction of AMG; somewhere safely in the realm of one-half to two-thirds of the price of Stuttgart’s monster-engined luxobarges.
The first generation Lexus SC touring coupe has served as a performance-oriented placeholder in my mind for what kind of car the Lexus brand represents. There is no danger or dishonor in upping the performance level on this or any other Lexus-branded machine, provided it maintains the core values that brought Lexus the success it so richly deserves.
An F-optioned Lexus will be just that: an option. It will not confuse or distract or disappoint the brand’s “core” followers if only because they won’t buy it. In short, the exceptional Supra failed as a Toyota. I welcome its reincarnation as a Lexus.
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