As Lexus roll out the NX SUV, the Lexus F Series becomes ever more popular and we look forward to the launch of the RC F Coupe in the UK, I’m reminded fondly of many happy and sometimes frustrating times. You see, I was one of the original Lexus salesmen in the UK, way back in 1990. Back then, there were just a couple of dozen, carefully vetted, Lexus dealers. Indeed, we missed the initial launch by a few months while we moved to a new showroom to meet the criteria.
In the USA of course, social acceptance was different. I recall a conversation with the UK’s head of Lexus sales once commenting that Penske Lexus, just a single US dealership, sold more units per year than the entire UK network. “If I could sign Roger Penske for the UK, I’d sack you lot tomorrow” was the joke. At least we hoped he was kidding.
In 1990, no one had heard of Lexus in the UK. That’s not a figure of speech, it really was like that. Nobody knew about it and that posed a huge problem. As a small scale, new start name, muscling into Old Guard brands like Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW, it was tough to get that all important golf club car park credibility. And at that point, Lexus GB simply didn’t have the budget for ambitious TV advertising on a grand scale. After all, they were only planning on selling a few hundred cars in year one, nationwide. So we had to do things the hard way.
As a car salesman, that meant using a snipers rifle, not a blunderbuss, when it came to local marketing and advertising. The dreaded phrase, ‘Prospecting’ was hammered into us and we got out there with our highly polished single demo unit, gave the longest test drives ever and used what were then unusual methods for a car dealership. We used to spend what little the money we had on a single event each quarter, no local press advertising at all, no bus backs, radio advertising. Instead, we’d get an invited selection of people to drive it and give them a great time. As well as the staple diet of the car manufacturer, golf, golf and more golf, we also took our prospects and owners horse racing, we used helicopter rides from the lawns of hotels, plus anything else we could think of that didn’t blow our budget. We were forging relationships, gaining acceptance amongst owners and creating valuable personal contacts that are so important in the executive car market.
The car was, without a doubt, technically brilliant for it’s time. But in that market, that didn’t always count for much, in the days before JD Power. Jaguar drivers were a particularly tough nut. The XJ40 series had just been polished up by then owners Ford with ‘new’ engines and a better three year warranty that was costing them a fortune in burn rate.
Jaguar drivers would drive a Lexus, praise it’s stunning ability over a coffee, go on to complain about the three gearboxes their old XJ40 had needed, the head gasket and the V Mounts that had fallen apart….. Then go right back and order another XJ. I was immensely frustrated and I didn’t get it until I spent a two year break from Lexus selling Jaguars at a time when their reliability was less than stellar, but their brand absolutely rocked. Good experience of the power of a strong brand that I found invaluable selling Lexus, when I returned.
So who were those early UK Lexus drivers and what made them tick? With hindsight, they were the kind of people who today would possibly buy a Tesla. They fell into two groups. The Old Money – they were wealthy and comfortable with who they were, with nothing to prove. They bought the LS400 because they knew it was the best. Who cares what the peasants think? Secondly, there were The Mavericks. The kind of younger, self made businessman who liked to create a stir in that golf club or squash club car park The kind of person who challenged people to question their buying decision. This gave them the platform to explain in great detail why it was a logical choice, often with even greater product knowledge than than we possessed. And as we sold more cars, the ‘early adopters’ became our champions, passionately defending the marque, giving us personal referrals, the cell phone numbers of the people we needed to get in front of and banging the drum at our corporate events.
Building a brand still takes all of the painful things that building Lexus in a tiny dealership from scratch in the UK did back in 1990. But today there are many more powerful tools to help. The sheer power of social media to engage in conversation with a target audience and gain help from your ‘champions’ has magnified what we did back then. The cost effective way that you can have a powerful website, with professional photography, the amazing new ways that you’re able to create High Definition video content and display it on devices like the iPad, going viral in a global way, all make building a brand still painful, but more cost effective and much quicker.
Today, Lexus and Toyota’s command of social media globally is superb. The styling in recent years with the Spindle Grille look has given the cars an instantly recognisable ‘Face’, something missing in 1990. The LFA has been voted one of the top five greatest sports cars of all time and the new models are pushing into new markets all the time. But when I think about how we started at that little Lexus dealership, in the corner of the Toyota showroom with just one car, all the things we did then are just as relevant today, it’s just the tools to do the job are far sharper.