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Rec. Reading


February 26th, 2003
revised September 23rd, 2004

Lexus: in the Lap of Latent Luxury?

Preserving Lexus' uniqueness, lest the period referred to within Lexus as "the dark years" happen again

Unique among its Japanese peers and in the luxury class as a whole, Lexus' success was predicted by few.

Some of the ideology that brought that success, however, has been lost in truck sales. These now outnumber Lexus' car sales disproportionately to the segment in which Lexus plays.

Moreover, chasing the luxury truck market sets up compromises that even Lexus' tradition of overcoming the impossible cannot vault.

Still more importantly, Lexus might have been expected to use these 'good years' to build the brand.

Is Lexus becoming latent?
Not a magazine cover, but an actual Lexus ad, clipped from Automobile last year. Lexus' ads once promoted the inherent values of the manufacturer's cars in unique ways - such as revving the engine with precariously stacked champagne glasses on the hood to demonstrate refinement.

Disingenuously creating identity by (haphazardly) benchmarking the veh-icles against the Germans is a decidedly poorer strategy. Can one ever imagine Mercedes-Benz or BMW doing the same?!
The 3rd-generation GS is due late next year as a 2006 model. It cannot come soon enough

Our Favorite Lexi

1990-1993 Lexus LS400. Headed by Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki, the LS400 was designed from the outset to be the best car Toyota had ever put together.

Suzuki wanted a vehicle with a low coefficient of drag and yet one that was stable at high speeds; a large, powerful engine and yet a quiet one; a relatively light car, and yet a refined car - and, on top of it all, better tooling than the already superlative stuff that Toyota was using.

Impossible quickly became a keyword in the young Lexus' lexicon.

crucially, became a second. Despite adopting the sizeable and upright front fascia that was necessary to give the then-new and yet-to-be-established brand some credibility through traditional presence, the LS400 featured extraordinary attention to detail
1992-2000 Lexus SC300/ 400. The first of only two Lexi to be designed by Toyota's California-based Calty center (the current-generation SC430 being the other), the '90s SC was aerodynamic (note the lack of a grille) and clean.

There may have been little intricacy to its surfacing or detailing, but the proportions were spot-on for a luxury coupé
1993-1997 Lexus GS300. Styled by Giugiaro's ItalDesign, the GS300 was advertised as a collaboration between "elegant Italian design concept and meticulous Japanese engineering" (the latter headed by Hiroyuki Watanabe).

Although not quite Giugiaro's best work, it was quite distinctive - for a Lexus - and powered by a 3.0-liter inline-6.

GS300 was a little soft for the market it played in (Road & Track gave performance honors to the aging Saab 9000 in a 1993 comparison test), but that was not as much its problem as were the unfavorable exchange rates at the time: in a reversal of Lexus strategy, the poor ES300 was more expensive than the BMW 525i!
1999-2003 Lexus RX300. Distinctively styled and packaged, the RX300 represents one of the few times that the Japanese have been able to predict a trend in time to reap the benefits of riding a new trend from, virtually, its beginning.

A soft-roading crossover, it successfully lent a little magic to its humble Camry underpinnings and gave the market one of its first tastes of flexibility. Vehicles like this have made that a buzzword these days
2002-present SC430. Derivative? Yes, and European Photography Editor Christian Wimmer won't let us forget it.

At 3,840 lbs., it is heavy, too, and the drive is decidedly on the softer side.

Yet, regardless, one has the impression of a vehicle that tries appealingly hard to be credible.

The frontal area is the lowest of any Lexus; those wheels are aero-dynamically considered (just like the first- and second-generation LS400's were) and, like the RX300/ 330 and SC300/ 400, the fascias eschew traditionally  upright staidness for swoopy curves.

Consider, too, that this is the only Lexus in the line-up in which any considered effort has been made along the flanks

This past June, Lexus USA sold its two millionth car.

As many remember, and as the rest have been told, it had all seemed so unlikely just fifteen years ago.

Yet what several have forgotten is that not only were the odds stacked against Lexus at its launch, but that the company endured a difficult period - known internally as "the dark years" - during the early-to-mid-'90s. (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

The shift in exchange rates, and threats of import luxury taxes from the Clinton administration, claimed Mazda's Amati plans (see article: 'Millenia Bows Out of the Millennium'), and sobered both Acura and Infiniti - and potential ideas of a V12 Lexus.

In Making and Selling Cars: Innovation and Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry, author and Chair of the Department of Geography at Miami University James M. Rubenstein illustrates the problem, which came to be known as the Lexus effect:

"A vehicle designed in Japan to be sold profitably at 2 million yen could be priced in the United States at $20,000, if the exchange rate was 100 yen to the dollar.

"When the yen rose to 80 to the dollar, a $20,000 sticker price lost money. The same rate of return could be maintained only by raising the price in the United States to $25,000, a level that would reduce market share and therefore overall profits."  (Making and Selling Cars: Innovation and Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry, James M. Rubenstein, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

In the early '80s, the same thing had happened to parent company Toyota. Unfavorable exchange rates moved to make it difficult to sell Japanese imports, and no longer could the company move machinery purely on price.

Luckily for Toyota, its line-up had improved since the mundanity of the '70s. Celicas, Supras, and the MR2 worked to give the brand an aspirational quality, while the bread-and-butter products were solid, if not stellar.

Yet Lexus, flush with the success of the past few years, has been hopping all over the board, decidedly lacking the focus that made the first-generation LS400 such a party-crasher, and the RX300 a surprisingly innovative icon of the late '90s.

One consequence is that the division now sells more trucks than it does cars; a free electronic copy of Bear in Review 2003/4 to the first one who can tell us who else in the industry this is a common criticism of!

One of the basic reasons that Lexus lacks the focus that produced the original LS400 is that the division has gradually revised its structure.

It seems appropriate, in the face of these changes and changing trends, to explore whether Lexus' strategy might be too latent, and if perhaps it is too early to throttle-back in the face of steadily increasing European (and, recently, American) competition.

Lexus in general presents us at AutomoBear with something of an enigma: much though we believe that history and heritage have real impacts on the market when used properly, Lexus came out of nowhere with a superb effort that - by re-evaluating what luxury buyers wanted in the novel way that perhaps only a fresh approach can provide - highlighted the flaws in the established players' methods.

Only a few years previously, it had seemed impossible.

Impossible, certainly, is a keyword in Lexus history. In 1983, then-head of Toyota's U.S. division Yukiyasu Togo had the unenviable task of convincing conservative Toyota to sink one billion dollars into a project that would challenge the best.

When approved, the project was given seemingly unattainable targets by its (now legendary) chief engineer, Ichiro Suzuki.

We submit that Lexus is unique, an approach we will continue to follow in this article as we explore the next steps that the company might take.

  • Lexus is unique among Japanese luxury divisions in being able to convincingly charge $50,000+ for its cars. Neither the older Acura (since 1986) nor Infiniti (1990) have been able to succeed in this rarefied atmosphere.

  • Lexus' approach to the market was unique. As early as 1985, its designers went to Laguna Beach and observed their potential customers.

    • "You cannot create a 'child of America' unless you understand Americans," Togo reportedly advised his charges, in a complete reversal of the Germans' often arrogant approach that they knew best (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

      They found, author Jonathan Mahler notes, that "the taste of the American luxury consumer was essentially European, only warmer and brighter."

  • Despite the presence of charismatic individuals in the Lexus projeuct (Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki, in particular), no one individual - no Bruno Sacco, Jurgen Schrempp, Wolfgang Reitzle, Chris Bangle, Harley Earl, Bob Lutz, or Harry Leland - is identifiable in public literature and folklore. This, particularly given the importance of Suzuki's impact on Lexus, is relatively unique in the industry.

Lexus excels in two aspects:

  • interior ambience, where its refinement is second to none,

  • and customer service (link).

There are two aspects, however, where Lexus' uniqueness falls over:

  • design (link),

  • and a common thread that might brand the entire line-up (link).

Lexus Uniqueness: Interior ambience and refinement

Quiet and cosseting at the end of a hard day's work, the Lexus cabin greets its occupants with unparalleled refinement.

Often described as cushier and warmer than German cars, but firmer and more purposeful than a Cadillac, Lexus has carved out its own, unique share of the market in this sense - when the Lexus variant has been considered from the start of the design process.

Some of the base-model ES generations have been a little spartan and overly pragmatic (and the LX's luxury have often had a more tacked-on look, more about which later) but, those aside, build quality and material choices are regularly first-rate.

Ergonomics have been sound since Toyota's Human Factors Laboratory adopted a policy of determining the size, shape, and position of controls and displays by how often they were used, back in the original LS400.  

Driving position seat adjustments are generous - note, too, that the LS400 featured the world's first tilt-and-telescoping steering-wheel with an SRS airbag.

Stereo systems have switched from Nakamichi to Mark Levinson in recent years; both were always excellent. DVD-Audio (matching Acura's TL and '05 RL, and Cadillac's '05 STS) is likely not far behind.

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Lexus Uniqueness: Customer Service

Lexus' customer service is second to absolutely none.

The Lexus dealer network, which started just 70-strong in 1990, was established purely for the Lexus division. This, and the consistent, caring attitude common to all the dealerships, has been as important to Lexus' success as its products.

The decisions that led to this attitude were inherent in nature, down to the design of the buildings themselves: the service department was " positioned next to the driveway on the side of the building, so technicians could spot customers as they approached. The service people could punch the license plate number into Lexus' central database and have the whole history of the car in front of them before the customer walked through the door - and be able to greet them by name too," writes Mahler (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

Also part of the design process were coffee tables for service advisors as opposed to more authoritative desks, and windows that overlooked service bays and thus provided customers with a view of the work being done to their vehicles.

Lexus dealerships regularly offer cappuccino bars, boutiques, media centers, and even fireplaces to hold to the basic idea, laid down at Lexus' launch, that the company would "treat each customer as (they) would a guest in (their) home."

Indeed, it is often noted that this quality of service provides the closest thing that Lexus has to a common thread in its line-up (see 'Common Thread' section below).

Even that first, inevitable recall in December 1990, a few months after the LS400 went on sale, was turned into triumph. Customers that lived more than two hundred miles away from a dealership were paid house calls by engineers; all cars were washed and filled with gas, and initially negative media reports began fawning over how well the fledgling company had handled itself!

Mind you, author Jonathan Mahler notes that customer service at Lexus went through a rough patch in the mid-'90s before being rescued largely by the influence of the then-retired Ichiro Suzuki (are we starting to see a pattern here?)

Plagued by the rising yen, some Lexus dealerships in 1994 were unable to guarantee loaner cars of comparable classes and service standards began to slip slightly as dealers tried to minimize the damage to their profit margins. Although Lexus officials have suggested after the fact that the second-generation LS400 was too conservative an evolution, the exchange rate was a decidedly more potent factor.

Lexus, of course, would recover - if not quite with the courage of years past.

Later years saw problems with the RX300, in particular (ironically enough, one of our favorite Lexi). By 1999, Lexus had fallen to sixth in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey.

Tony Fujita, a twenty-year Toyota veteran, visited Ichiro Suzuki for inspiration. Having found it and understood first-hand the values that had made Lexus successful, he returned to try to restore "that same spirit," as Mahler puts it, "the ethos of 'no compromise' to the Lexus experience." (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

Now successfully back at the top, Lexus has regularly performed spectacularly well.

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Where Lexus Lacks Uniqueness: Design

Often derided as being conservative and derivative, Lexus has indeed made few contributions to the world of design. The current-generation ES300 has been one of its few cars that has not launched to charges of copying yet, despite being among the most polarizing of the company's vehicles, it remains saddled with nondescript flanks whose blandness does not match the attention given to its fascias - a common Japanese design failing.

Rather than revive tired clichés, however, let us search for reasons that Lexi have often lacked the visual impact and sense of purpose of their competitors.

Even with the flagship LS400, and certainly with later vehicles, Lexus was never particularly radical in design.

At the time that Lexus launched the LS400, luxury cars projected gravitas by being upright (in a sense, we have returned to this trend after an aero period). Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki reportedly wanted a lower fascia up front, but accepted that the stance of the car's peers would dictate whether or not it would have presence and agreed not to diverge from a traditional front end.

LS400 did, however, have attention to detail on its side; aerodynamics was still key to the car's design. The lips where the hood met the windshield and the trunk met the rear window curved upward to smoothly meet the glass. Flush fitting of all auxiliary pieces was considered absolutely critical. The C-pillar was a work of art, being refined several times over to keep the rear deck relatively low and elegant, yet without raising the coefficient of drag.

Even the sidelights were considered, and were eventually spring-loaded against the headlights for a better fit - inadvertently recalling the designs of several old, far more pragmatic and plebian French vehicles (whose reasoning was simply easier bulb changes)!

Note, too, the slight lip on the trunk, which better managed the air departing the car and provided a hint of downforce.

Jonathan Mahler notes that "chief engineer Suzuki's attention to detail was so great that he assigned a designer to work full-time on the appearance of the engine components (of the first-generation LS400).

"The result was a clean, well-organized and attractive engine compartment." (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

Indeed, there were inherent, product-related reasons for the LS400's success - not simply its price advantage, or the quality of its dealer network. Such reasons are vital when externalities strike.

As one might expect, such attention to detail is more convincing when it is an inherent strategy, than when it is peripherally applied. The former means starting from scratch, as with the LS400; the latter has been most used by Lexus when applying its badge to existing Toyota vehicles, such as the ES250, a gussied-up Camry which appeared alongside the LS400 in 1990.

The LS400, you see, was a car that was designed inherently as a luxury vehicle to beat the world's best (for all intents and purposes, as a Lexus, though this was determined later), with the peripheral intention of badging it as a Toyota (Celsior) in the home market. This is important, because it illustrates the shift in strategy in heretowith economy-minded Toyota.

In contrast, almost all Lexus vehicles that have followed were Toyotas first, and Lexi second. Unlike popular folklore suggests, they have rarely substantially differentiated themselves from their more plebian counterparts.

The aforementioned early-'90s gain in the value of the yen is a prime suspect in this change in strategy, as is the '90s acceptance in the American market of luxury trucks that were little more than cheaper models with wood and leather applied.

Author and Chair of the Department of Geography at Miami University James M. Rubenstein notes that "Toyota's search for continuous improvement created a system in which engineers had the power to overspecify and overcomplicate design standards.

"Japanese companies found that with quality already so high, further improvements were harder to find and more expensive to implement.

"Instead of continuous improvements measured in terms of quality and productivity, Japanese manufacturers set as their principal goal improvements in quality and productivity that yielded cost savings and therefore higher rates of return on investment for shareholders." (Making and Selling Cars: Innovation and Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry, James M. Rubenstein, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

So it seems more understandable, then, that Lexus might introduce the LX450 in late 1995 as a '96 model. Nothing more than a Land Cruiser with extra equipment, higher-quality paint, and softer shocks and bushings, the full-size luxury truck put Lexus USA officials on the defensive.

"I was nervous," Lexus official Chris Hostetter tells author Jonathan Mahler. "I'm a product guy, and a product guy is going to stand for differentiation." (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

Toyota Motor Sales President Jim Press skirted the issue, noting, "if it was introduced today rather than twenty-five years ago, it would have been a Lexus, not a Toyota. We took what was a luxury vehicle to start with, and made it more luxurious."

Where was the style differentiation over the Land Cruiser? Quite simply, there was none. Nor was there any indication of inherent Lexus virtue to the conversion, the vehicle eschewing the principles that had been so carefully laid out by LS400 Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki.

Lexus was bolted and glued-on; Lexus was applied, not engineered. Refinement was tacked-on in a manner of which Suzuki, who demanded that his team not pack the original LS400 with heavy insulation but instead engineer refinement from within, would never have approved.

The sad part about it all is that design itself (as the BMW Group's Head of Design Chris Bangle recently suggested) is a relatively cheap differentiator!

As it turned out, Lexus need not have worried. In a trend that seems to work for many short-term strategies, particularly in the truck market, 7,528 LX450 vehicles were sold in 1996, taking ten percent of the company's overall sales with U.S. consumers apparently as blind to the vehicle's origins as the Europeans' rejection of it might have been overt (had it ever been sold across the pond).

Yet what was the damage to the brand? The very domestic vehicles that had been so threatened by Lexus just a few years earlier could in 1996 point out that the company's full-size SUV was no less expedient than their own.

Indeed, what is the damage of similarly (if slightly less so), obviously expedient Lexi such as the ES300, GX470, and LX470? Why wait until extenuating circumstances, such as those ten years ago, potentially force the issue?

Our issue, we must clarify, is not with the based principle of Toyota-based Lexus vehicles; there have, after all, been several Toyota-based Lexi (dubbed Lexotas by some cynics) that have been commercially successful. Additionally, using Toyota components has permitted shorter development cycles.

It is also important to note that, with vehicles such as the IS300 and GS300/ 430, there has been an easy workaround: simply, the Toyota vehicles are not imported.

Rather, concerns arise when the Lexus variant has not been sufficiently considered and differentiated from the outset. Our questions are these: what, buying and service experience aside, now separates Lexus vehicles from Toyota's own? What is inherently different about the product itself, and its philosophy?

Should that difference continue to be increasingly peripheral and tacked-on, the credibility gap that the original LS400 was able to overcome will once again begin to open.

In turn, this may leave Lexus vulnerable to conditions beyond its control, including exchange rate fluctuations, the improved quality of competitors, and the cyclical nature of the industry; what was fashionable yesterday may not be tomorrow, and Lexus' confirmed conservatism flies in the face of the strategies of several powerful opponents (notably BMW, of recent).

Finally, although the Japanese have regularly been superlative at manufacturing cars, they have had greater trouble manufacturing superlative cars - cars that are viewed as iconic... cars that build the brand.

One must remember that the Japanese record for predicting trends is sparse. When the minivan hit the U.S. market in the '80s, the Japanese response was silent. In the '90s, the time of the SUV, it took years to catch-on. Japanese full-size pickup trucks have yet to hit the roads.

In Lexus' line-up, the only vehicle to have come in at the beginning of the trend has been the RX300, one of the first cross-over SUVs (and one of our favorite Lexi).

With distinctive design, among other inherent virtues, Lexus could hedge its bets against externalities and its own track record.

As things stand, the design - both in terms of style, and packaging - of Lexus' products has moved ever closer to peripheral appliqués and away from the inherent virtue that Ichiro Suzuki's fear of failure had engendered.

A Design Suggestion... It is impossible to overemphasize the importance that LS400 Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki placed on aerodynamics. In this aspect, Suzuki's work has been growingly unique; aerodynamics has become less important in recent years as aspects of SUV design filter into cars and as cross-overs and other variants become more desirable.

Lexus itself has backed away from aerodynamics in recent years. The current-generation GS, for instance, features an optional rear spoiler that makes no difference to the vehicle's coefficient-of-drag figure! Only the LS continues to give unparalleled consideration to the field, as you might have seen in the sole remaining Lexus ad that bothers to discuss the inherent virtues of the product - the one showing the dimples on the undercarriage.

The lack of importance placed on aerodynamics by the industry today has permitted coefficient-of-drag figures to be thrown around in even the enthusiast media as though they mean something. Those who know understand that drag force - the primary force acting against a vehicle at speed - is proportional to frontal area...

... and that a high frontal area can decrease the coefficient-of-drag.

Thus a manufacturer can increase the frontal area of a vehicle, and yet claim improved aerodynamics! And they do, because they can...

Here's our idea: go back to the drawing board for the next-generation of vehicles, Lexus, and drop that frontal area figure; raise the bottom of the rear overhang, and spend the . Next, publish the Cd A - the coefficient of drag multiplied by the frontal area - figures. Only Citroën used to do this, and it has long since dropped the idea under PSA Peugeot-Citroën.

Aerodynamics is an inherent part of the perceived Lexus philosophy of engineering excellence. In Lexus' short history, it stands out as a key piece that once defined the Lexus look, and presented the segment with a fresh proposal.

Besides, Japanese design already has a tendency to focus on the fine points; as author Jonathan Mahler notes, "Japan is a crowded country, a nation of traffic jams; a car there is in its natural state when it's standing still. Design emphasis is thus placed on the details" (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

In addition, back in 1990, there was an intelligent aspect to choosing a Lexus - a feeling that, as a buyer, one had beaten the German juggernaut at their own game. Aerodynamics, despite not quite being a precise science, is an intelligent practice.

Lexus, whose attention to detail has been a key virtue, is in a position to educate its customers (themselves hardly illiterate).

Thus we propose that Lexus once again emphasize aerodynamics in any future strategy that might (as it should) use design as a differentiator.

As a bonus, such design would require an inherent strategy. This is the nature of aerodynamics: every piece affects the air flow over the whole.

Just as the first-generation Taurus' emphasis on aerodynamics was therapeutic for Ford strategy, it should also be for a Lexus whose products, if one accepts the points of this article, are decidedly slacking (see article: 'Farewell to the Taurus').

Such emphasis would today be unique, too.

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Where Lexus Lacks: A Common Thread

The few things we can say are common among Lexi vehicles is the aforementioned interior ambience; a commitment to support; Optitron fluorescent backlit gauges (IS300 apart), and that grille. Yet, as with the previous segment, we seek here a more inherent thread than that provided by styling, or even packaging.

Tenet perhaps best describes our focus.

It was Ichiro Suzuki, the chief engineer for the LS400 project (first dubbed Circle F), who laid down the basic tenets of the Lexus brand.

Mahler writes, "Suzuki spoke endlessly about Swiss nail clippers, explaining to his engineers that you can buy nail clippers all over the world, but that there's something about the way Swiss nail clippers operate that conveys a unique level of precision.

"Each and every facet of their car should distinguish itself in much the same way, he said, both inviting and defying comparison" (The Lexus Story, Jonathan Mahler, Melcher Media, 2004).

Now, due to Lexus' lack of any unique styling statement, it is often difficult to find a common thread in its vehicles.

Moreover, as we have noted previously, Lexus' sales figures are currently heavily propped-up by trucks which, car-based RX330 somewhat apart, have a hard time standing for the same principles that made the original LS400 such a masterpiece. The GX470 and LX470 are neither aerodynamic nor - perhaps more crucially - do they exhibit particularly unique strategies in their classes.

When the time came for the ES300's introduction in 1992, it was better in every way than the ES250 it replaced - despite a continued, visible reliance on the Camry, and a 63/ 37 front-to-rear weight distribution. The ES250 had been ill-fitting for a new luxury brand, and sales - back in 1991 - showed it. At the end of Lexus' first full year, the doubly-expensive LS400 accounted for half of its sales! To put this into perspective, imagine BMW's 7 series selling in the same numbers as the 3er.

ES300 was less obvious in its Camry reference. Still, the same problems remained: Lexus was an added quantity, one which was quantified by tilt steering-wheels, Optitron (electro-luminescent) displays, and remote entry systems.

In an unforgettable test, Motor Trend in 1994 suggested the Chrysler LHS over the ES300 - hardly where Lexus wanted to position itself (underrated though the LHS might have been). Small wonder that it never chose to introduce the ES line in Europe, where it would have been similarly outdone by any number of homegrown European vehicles.


In conclusion... The Germans were unimpressed when Lexus launched the first-generation LS400, its first car, in Cologne, Germany (chosen for effect). Who would have thought that people would have plunked down Benz money for a brand that had no real past?

Obviously, the experiment has worked. People shopping for luxury want to be treated with respect, and some are willing to throw out the Germans' arrogance, and the Americans' inconsistent performance.

The underperformance of Lexus' rivals has enabled the division to cut corners, boosting profitability while still offering (a rough period in the mid-'90s notwithstanding) superlative service - but with heretowith undetermined effects on the image of its products.

If the Lexus LS400 itself felt threatened by the stronger yen of the early '90s, and by the potential trade war a few years later, what might be the effects on the current, more expedient and less distinctive range?

Moreover, with Lexus benchmarking its competitors in order to judge its own investment, could it be left wanting for a more visceral approach as their quality inevitably improves?

In an earlier, less in-depth version of this article published early last year, we wrote, "once the dust from all these mergers settles, brands will realize that unless they provide true distinctness in competition - a genuine alternative - they will be folded into their parent companies without a second thought.

"This rather drastic prediction may not be relevant to Lexus now, but who knows what may come? And one can hardly accuse Lexus of having a consistent brand image as things now stand (although refinement does stand out)."

Ominously enough, the Lexus strategy, once so much a different proposition from the Toyota strategy, has moved the emphasis away from the inherent virtues of its products and toward Toyota Quality and the organization that backs those products.

There is evidence that Lexus itself has become somewhat confused. Think of some of the more recent Lexus ads (particularly the print ad shown at the top), and there is none of the superlative presentation that characterized those first efforts in 1990.

Indeed, Lexus advertising was - while not unique in the context of the industry's history - certainly unique when compared with its contemporary competitors. With excellent promotional spots such as Noise, Balance, and Ball, Lexus attacked a luxury segment which appeared have forgotten how to present itself.

BMW, for instance, was having severe problems with its advertising. In Driven (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), author and USA Today Detroit Bureau Chief David Kiley writes that the company had fired ad agency Ammirati & Puris in 1992 and hired Mullen, only to wind up with an ad that was both generic and technically flawed.

It showed, describes Kiley, "a 7 series rolling gracefully down the road" while a voiceover said, "everything else is senseless luxury.

"The co-ordination, or lack thereof, of film editing with the voice-over left the viewer with the impression that the BMW 7 series was, in fact, senseless luxury," remarks Kiley (Driven, David Kiley, John Wiley and Sons, 2004).

Newcomer Infiniti famously refused to show a car in its advertising at all, instead choosing nature scenes with a voice-over!

Contrast this with Lexus' efforts at the time. Back in 1990, the brand had a clear, consistent, and - most importantly - inherent vision. The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection, Lexus' cherished tagline (Relentless was later changed to Passionate), was derived directly from the Japanese kaizen, or continuous improvement.

What a brilliant example of advertising based on the inherent value of the product! (the best kind there is - see our recent feature, Audience Trust is Brand-Building)

Lexus has a future, and will eventually have had a genuine past, too. To build on the more immediate past, however, requires a consistent, original styling theme and a continued emphasis on products that are genuine alternatives to the established players, rather than emulation backed by a superlative organization.

Nearly fifteen years (has it really been that long?) should be long enough for the products - and not merely the organization - to  have developed an identity that diverges from the generic branch that is the luxury market.

Think of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, for instance, which are rarely cross-shopped against each other (and more rarely still in Europe).

Only in this way can Lexus hedge against factors which it has little-to-no control over; by fielding products with inherent value that is unique to the Lexus brand.

Addendum... Lexus enthusiast Michael writes-in to give us an aficionado perspective of the current and future crop of Lexi.

Michael writes about the new L-Finesse design language that Lexus is said to be honing, agreeing that a single face (a person responsible) has not been presented behind it.
"The Japanese companies as a whole seem much more secretive when compared to BMW and Mercedes, who enjoy a rich tradition and heritage, and don't hesitate to share that with the customer.

"It would be nice to see Lexus as a brand open up more,"
he muses, "but I doubt it's going to happen any time soon."

We may not have found the current
GS to be homogenous, but that is exactly what Michael likes about it. "I fell in love with the car instantly," he writes, "and my passion for automobiles grew from there.

GS is probably one of the bolder statements Lexus has ever made aside from the original LS and SC... the back end of the car is definitely distinctive, as well as the side profile, chunky rear flanks, and alien, yet stunning front end. The GS has an instant presence about it, and I only wish the '06 had the same authoritative aura the '97 possessed."

Michael goes on to suggest that the new Mercedes-Benz SLK "looks an awful lot like the Lexus SC430 from the A-pillars back;" that the RX300 "was the original crossover;" that there is "only so much you can do with an SUV" like the GX and LX, and that the LS "has obviously been taking pages out of the Mercedes design book (but that) the 2nd and 3rd generations still manage to be legitimate evolutions over their predecessors."

By and large, we agree, particularly with the point that "
building history and heritage around a brand that's only 13 years old isn't a simple task."

"One other thing I'd like to add to this discussion,"
he concludes, "is that although Lexus designs haven't been at the forefront of their competition over the last few years, I feel they have been one of the major pioneers for new technologies.

"In torque-activated powertrain control; laser cruise control; voice-activated controls; back-up cameras, parking sonars, adaptive suspensions, superior sound systems and safety technology, Lexus has been ahead of the Germans.

"Just some food for thought."

Indeed. Thanks, Michael.

Recommended Reading...
No sooner had this article been published than Chester Dawson's excellent Lexus: The Relentless Pursuit (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) - ISBN#0470-821108, hit bookshelves.

As of September 29th, then, the Recommended Reading section for this article has been revised to include this new volume. If you want one book on Lexus that tells the whole, unabridged story, this is not only the sole player, but also a chronicle whose insight and thoroughness on the subject would be hard to match.

We had noted that existing Lexus material has been perhaps a touch too deferential to be truly incisive. This is not the case with Mr. Dawson's work, which tells the no-holds-barred inside story of the internal mentality that created Lexus, as well as that of external attitudes which made the exercise such an uphill climb.

Lexus' mind-set toward the competition in terms of its advertising is particularly well fleshed-out (the company was initially reluctant to antagonize the Germans, which has not prohibited Mr. Dawson from describing some hilarious-if-misguided would-be ads!), as are comparisons between the
LS400 and period Infiniti Q45, and the profile of Ichiro Suzuki - a man certainly the equal of better-known luminaries in Western automotive culture.

Most of all, we appreciate Mr. Dawson's obvious enthusiasm for his topic. "
It was indeed a labor of love to write the book," he told us recently, adding his surprise that more has not been written on Lexus. "After all, it's not every day that a luxury brand is launched to such initial disdain (from peers) and eventual acclaim (from consumers)."

Indeed, sir - we thank you for your efforts, and highly recommend them
(see http://www.chesterdawson.com). Mr. Dawson is an editor for BusinessWeek in New York, having spent a decade in Tokyo writing for BusinessWeek, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Associated Press, and Bloomberg News.

It provides but a chapter on Lexus, but Dr. Jeffrey Liker's The Toyota Way is another insightful and objective account of Toyota's thinking and organization during and after the
LS400's development.

Lexus fans will enjoy both Jonathan Mahler's new and beautifully presented The Lexus Story (Melcher Media, 2004), which is currently advertised on Lexus' website
(ISBN #0-9717935-7-3), and Brian Long's Lexus: The Challenge To Create the Finest Automobile (Veloce, 2000) - (ISBN #1-901295-81-8).

At times a little too deferential to be incisive, both books are nonetheless valuable for, in particular, the intriguing stories behind the first-generation