Lexus, Out of Nowhere…

by Chris Crowley on March 11, 2013

Lexus BalanceTo some younger people who grew up with the brand, it may be surprising that Lexus has only been around since 1989. As someone “of a certain age” who can remember a world without Lexus, it’s hard to believe just how quickly the brand has taken off and become such a major player in the luxury car market. Most successful luxury brands, including rivals Audi (first produced in 1910), Mercedes-Benz (1926), and BMW (1929), have close to a century of tradition and brand recognition to draw from. How was Lexus able to achieve such widespread success so quickly?

There is no simple answer, but my best stab at it would be that Lexus walked an incredibly fine line in clearly differentiating itself as its own separate brand outside of Toyota, while building upon a strong foundation of Toyota quality. Clever marketing (and the financial backing of Toyota to make a huge marketing push) for the brand’s first vehicle certainly didn’t hurt either.

The TV commercial for the original Lexus LS 400 was an instant classic that has become iconic: A pyramid of stacked champagne glasses rests undisturbed on the hood of the beautiful sedan, even as its engine revs up to the equivalent of 145 MPH, while a stately voice tells us that it’s “meant to stir the soul, and not much else.” Understated, upscale, and ingenious – much like the brand itself has proven to be over the years.

The fledgling brand rode rave reviews and, initially, lower prices than its German competitors to solid initial sales that grew steadily throughout the ‘90s. Lexus also hit it big with its expansion into luxury SUVs, particularly the RX crossover. The Lexus RX debuted in 1998, capitalizing on the SUV craze in America to quickly become the brand’s top-selling model.

Careful brand management is the name of the game for Toyota and Lexus. To this day, Toyota is cautious not to “muddy the waters” by making high-end Toyota models such as the Avalon too posh, while also taking care not to strip down its base Lexus IS to the point where it falls from premium status.  While Lexus likely won’t reach the lofty worldwide sales numbers of Audi, Mercedes, or BMW anytime soon, it has outsold the luxury arms of its Japanese rivals, Acura (Honda) and Infiniti (Nissan), while helping Toyota to become the largest automaker in the world. That’s not too shabby for a brand that has yet to reach a quarter century in age.

Still image from the 1989 Lexus “Balance” TV ad courtesy of Wikipedia.

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