Lexus – how an international brand was born in secret
At the outset of the Japanese car industry boom in 1983, Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda issued car manufacturers a no-hold barred challenge to create the best car in the world. Taking his own challenge incredibly seriously, a quiet obsession began, resulting in the launch of one of the world’s most instantly recognisable car brands.
Lexus was the result of the best part of a decade’s work, as Toyota launched an undercover project code-named Flagship One. Toyoda was adamant that the car was to be aimed at the US market with only the very best in engineering, branding and aesthetics, and whilst drawing on some of the successes of his firm’s recent past, it should be a stand alone project with no major elements from previous Toyota cars.
The Japanese car industry arms race was so competitive that many of Toyota’s rivals ignored Toyoda’s gauntlet. Undeterred, the eccentric car mogul ploughed time and money into his secret project in an attempt to blow his rivals out of the water, spurred on by the successful launch of Honda’s Acura, an export version of the Honda Legend that sold well in the US. Toyoda further maintained that luxury should be at the forefront of the design, and hundreds of prototypes were ruthlessly culled throughout the mid-80s.
With design finally going well as the project entered its third year, Toyoda set about employing the world’s most exclusive marketing consultants in a money-no-object outlook. World renowned marketing specialists Saatchi and Saatchi were brought in to form a specialised unit code-named ‘Team One’, working alongside global consulting firm Lippincott and Marguiles. Toyoda believed this ‘dream team’ approach to marketing would bring immense results, targeting the US market as one to dominate.
A longlist of 219 prospective brand names were painstaking drawn up by the two firms in 1986, again all in secret. Vectre, Verone, Chaparel and Calibre were the early frontrunners, before Alexis was given the nod later that year. That, too, was thrown onto the scrapheap soon afterwards, however, amidst concerns that the US market would too readily associate it with Alexis Carrington, a character on 1980s primetime television drama Dynasty. The first name was dropped initially before the ‘i’ was switched to a ‘u’, and the Lexus brand name was born.
Design ploughed on, and by 1987, Flagship One had settled on a trailblazing 7M-GE/7M-GTE inline-six engine that boasted immense power and drew on cutting edge rear wheel drive engineering. By now, the car was being referred to as the Lexus LS, again in secret, and it is by this name that it would eventually be launched.
The Team One branding team had by 1988, a year before the eventual release of the project, settled on a branding slogan “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection”, and began feeding this out to the media at every opportunity. Molly Designs and Hunter Communications were brought in to stylise the brand’s logo, taking four months to come up with the inverted ‘L’ in an oval that is so recognisable today. The exact dynamics of the logo, according to Toyota, were rendered using a mathmatical formula.
The cat was well and truly let out of the bag in late 1988 when the branding and logo featured at various US automotive shows including those in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Toyoda’s ambitious marketing dream had worked, and by now there was quite a buzz surrounding Lexus’ launch in the US motoring industry.
In a flurry of publicity and a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, the Lexus LS 400 was launched in September 1989 into 81 specially-built Lexus dealerships spread across the US. The car was a critical and commercial success, sweeping motoring awards that year and earning widespread praise for its ergonomic interior, quietness, fuel economy and value. It’s aerodynamic design was described as revolutionary, and overall the was hugely well received. As a direct result of the Lexus launch, Mercedes saw a 19% drop in their US sales, whilst BMW’s dropped 29%.
By the end of the project, Flagship One had cost well over $1 billion USD, and gone through around 450 prototypes, 24 engineering teams, 1,400 engineers, 2,300 technicians, 220 support workers and 60 of the world’s most respected designers in their very own ‘Relentless Pursuit of Perfection’.
Eiji Toyoda died five days after his 100th birthday on September 17, 2013.
In 2016, Lexus owns a 16.4% of the US luxury car market.