In Marvel Studios' upcoming "Black Panther" blockbuster, the superhero king of Wakanda surfs through a city clinging to the roof of his Lexus LC 500 supercar as his sister pilots it remotely. The Toyota Motor Corp. brand is trying to use the excitement of that cameo to end a seven-year drought as U.S. luxury sales leader.
The prominent role in the Walt Disney Co. movie, the first major superhero film to feature a black actor in the lead role and a largely black cast, is no accident, says Cooper Ericksen, Lexus's vice president of marketing. To succeed in shifting toward a more sporty, high-performance image, Lexus needs to reach a new audience.
"We are going after a younger customer, and just from a demographic standpoint, the younger you go, the more culturally diverse the population gets," Ericksen said in an interview after showing "Black Panther"-themed clips this week at the Detroit auto show. "The task to hit our sales plan really comes from bringing a lot of new customers into the brand."
As the U.S. shifts further away from a majority white country and baby boomers age and retire, companies are working to position themselves with younger buyers who are increasingly nonwhite. Spending by black, Asian and Hispanic consumers is growing faster than that of whites in the $19.5 trillion U.S. economy. African-Americans in particular are more frequent moviegoers.
The movie, set for release Feb. 16 in the U.S. and Canada, is expected to debut with weekend ticket sales of $120 million and take in $335 million during its domestic run in theaters, according to analysts at Box Office Pro, who have been raising their forecasts. That would make it one of the top 10 pictures of the year in the U.S. Advance sales set a record for a Marvel movie at Fandango.com. Disney's hasn't released its own forecast yet.
Marketing to minorities can be tricky, said Sonja Martin Poole, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, who conducts research on multicultural marketing and cited a recent H&M apparel ad that offended black customers and had to be pulled.
Lexus has long courted those customers and won't be seen as pandering, she said.
"There have been a lot of different brands that have made serious mistakes when trying to be inclusive or trying to attract African-American buyers," said Poole, who plans to take her teenage sons to see the movie next month. "You just have to be careful and you have to know your consumer and you have to come off as authentic. That's really the trick."
The idea for the Black Panther tie-in came from Walton Isaacson, the agency Lexus uses for its marketing to black and Hispanic consumers, Ericksen said. The campaign isn't necessarily targeted at black buyers as much as it is aimed at younger consumers, who are more likely to be nonwhite, he said. About a third of Lexus customers are nonwhite.