TOKYO (Bloomberg) -- Lexus wants BMW and Mercedes-Benz car buyers to know it can be more than just dependable.
To promote the revamped GS series, Lexus said that Sports Illustrated model Tori Praver helped to inspire a track challenged by American car-racing ace Scott Pruett, while armchair drivers keen to join in the action can get the Tori 500 app for the iPhone and iPad. The publicity helped Lexus sell more than 4,900 GS cars in the U.S. within two months of its introduction, exceeding sales for all of 2011.
It’s part of an effort by Lexus to separate itself from parent Toyota Motors Corp.’s stable -- at least a little -- and come up with a global strategy that gives BMW and Mercedes-Benz owners a reason to switch.
"To conquer BMW and Mercedes drivers, we can’t just be looked at as an upgraded version of Toyota,” said Kiyotaka Ise, who took the helm of Lexus in 2007. “We want our brand to be chosen for its character and handling.”
It’s also larger than Lexus itself. Toyota is stressing bolder style and what it calls “emotional designs” under a companywide revamp to foster creativity, streamline decision- making and get cars faster to market. The success of the Lexus strategy will signal whether Toyota can revive sales growth marred by output disruptions from natural disasters, a stronger yen and laggard introductions of new cars.
“Lexus is leading the way in how the entire Toyota Motor Corporation should operate,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda said at the world premier of the GS in August last year at Pebble Beach, Calif.
In an early sign of Lexus’s shift from the parent, Toyota’s headquarters rearranged desks so engineers and designers of the luxury marque founded in 1989 were separated from their Toyota- brand peers four years ago. The team’s independent brainstorming on the redevelopment of the GS led to an hourglass-like spindle grill becoming the common design element for new Lexus models.
“What was missing for Lexus was a centralized brand image,” said Takashi Aoki, a senior fund manager at Mizuho Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. “If you compared an entry-level Lexus car to that of BMW, the impression that Lexus gave was nowhere near the luxury image BMW’s car had.”
The revamped GS will test whether greater autonomy can help Lexus reclaim the crown it held for 11 years and lost to BMW in 2011 as the top-selling luxury car in the U.S.
Under a Toyota development plan unveiled last month, Lexus cars will be promoted based on “unified global branding.” That contrasts with Toyota-brand models, for which the parent company will group managers into three regions to better cater to local demand.
“When BMW or Mercedes owners talk about their cars, what matters to them is that they own a BMW, a car that’s a part of that brand, not which model,” Lexus’s Ise said in an interview from Miyazaki, south of Tokyo, after a test drive for the GS.
The BMW brand and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz marque are each about 10 times more valuable than the $2.55 billion estimated for the Lexus name, according to research by Interbrand. Toyota, the highest ranking car brand with a value of $27.8 billion, placed 11th on the consultancy’s top 100 list, which was led by Coca-Cola Co.
“For any successful brand, you need to make sure there’s some distance,” said Karl Schlicht, general manager for product and marketing planning at Lexus. “We don’t want to be known as a Toyota plus; that’s not what people pay for premium.”
Lexus topped a survey on dependable automakers issued by J.D. Power & Associates in February. Toyota, maker of the fuel-efficient Prius, led the overall industry with the fewest problems reported by car owners, the survey showed.
Still, Lexus’s ability to retain customers when they buy a new vehicle trails that for BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Westlake Village, Calif.-based J.D. Power said in January.
About 30 percent of Lexus owners typically leave for Mercedes-Benz or BMW cars, according to Toshio Bando, manager of the brand support group for Lexus. With the push for a more unified brand image, Lexus expects stronger loyalty, he said.
“The GS now has the moves to compete with those two German brands, and it hasn’t lost the quiet refinement we’ve come to expect of Lexus,” Tony Quiroga wrote in Car and Driver. The GS “is more aggressive than Lexuses of the past,” Quiroga said.
The GS 350 F Sport, in particular, “is an impressive redesign” that’s “actually fun to drive,” according to car researcher Edmunds.com.
Toyoda rejected at least three prototypes before giving the green light to the new GS, said Kazuo Ohara, a senior managing officer at Lexus. Had the current design not materialized, the president would have killed the entire series because “there was no pleasure in them,” he said.
Under Toyoda, the automaker also rolled out the first Lexus supercar, the $375,000 LFA, targeted at drivers of high-end sports models from Porsche AG, Ferrari SpA and Lamborghini SpA.
In the outline of the April 9 plan, Toyota said it has reduced the number of people who review new designs to speed up decision-making. The team screening Lexus designs has been cut by half, Ise said, without providing a figure.
“We used to depend on Toyota’s scoring system and the opinions of executives who had nothing to do with the brand,” the Lexus chief said. “When you try to please many people, you end up with a bland product with no character.”
Prepared for haters
Even so, Toyota’s engineering helped Lexus reign as the best-selling U.S. luxury car for more than a decade and won’t be entirely removed from Lexus’s make up, Ohara said. Lexus will continue to use Toyota’s hybrid-engine technology as that remains one of the biggest selling points for the luxury marque, he said.
The brand plans to boost U.S. sales by more than 25 percent this year after the revamp, Ohara said.
Lexus sold 6,960 GS cars in the U.S. as of April 30, following the introduction of the redesigned series in February, based on monthly figures provided by Toyota.
Among middle-luxury models, the brand sold 3,443 GS cars in the U.S. last year, compared with 51,491 for the BMW 5 series, according to Autodata Corp.
The push to strengthen loyalty among Lexus owners may drive away some customers like Tetsuji Inamoto, a 45-year-old entrepreneur living in Tokyo, who considered switching from his BMW 5 series to Lexus’s IS 350 sedan.
“The new design wasn’t what I’d imagined,” said Inamoto, who said he spent several weekends visiting Lexus dealerships. “My image of the brand went from being a sophisticated one to one geared toward a younger audience.”
Still, Lexus said it would rather be shunned by some buyers than be without a distinct identity.
“There will be lovers and there will be haters, but we are prepared for that,” Ohara said.
“What we want more than anything in this rebirth is for unity among our Lexus lineup,” he said. “A design that anyone and everyone likes is boring.”