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What the hell is going on at Lexus?

TG vists Tokyo to talk Lexus & the future of Japanese luxury

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Trading on your national culture is nothing new in the car industry. Particularly in the premium and luxury brands. The Germans have made a massively successful business of getting us to believe, rightly in some cases, wrongly in others, that their engineering is superior to anyone else’s.

The Swedes sell us on intelligently avoiding risk altogether. And, even though none of the companies are still British owned, all of our home carmakers make sure people know there is a bit of James Bond, Ranulph Fiennes, Gordon Ramsay and The Queen beating at the heart of each of them.

But not so much the Japanese luxury car companies. Rather than sell us on any of their enviable home country skills and traits, they typically gravitate towards an anonymous middle ground where they are almost invisible. If you didn’t already know that a Lexus or Infiniti came from Japan, there’s very little in the way they are designed and sold in the UK or elsewhere which tells you that they are.

That’s sensible in one way. Most people don’t wake up one day and say ‘right, I’m going to buy a Japanese car.’ They wake up and say ‘I’ve got X amount of money to spend, what’s the most reliable, economical bang I can get for my buck. Oh, look, that Lexus/Infiniti has the best offer. I’ll just check what people think down the pub, then buy one of those’. Or not.

The Or Not is the way this invisibility is damaging.  With no strong brand image of their own, it doesn’t matter how well they are built or drive. Or that the dealer remembers your name and birthday forever. The cars sell on price not prestige and adopt the image of their drivers and owners.

All it takes then is for Steve Coogan to cast one of your cars as the wheels of the hilariously appalling early morning DJ Alan Partridge and your brand is hard-linked with that Argyle-checked tank-topped politically incorrect nightmare. And your mates in the pub say: “No mate. Buy the Merc instead’.

But that’s beginning to change. Even though Infiniti continues to lurch from one identity crisis to the next – even after sponsoring the Red Bull F1 team for several seasons and having the world champion shill for them in ads, most people still have no idea whatsoever that an Infiniti is a brand of car – Lexus is starting to get its story straight.

The first signs of life started with the LFA supercar. That got the world’s attention. Then, just when we were thinking it was a one-off folly of a race-driving CEO, out pops a swift luxury speedboat, a hoverboard, and then, even more bizarrely, a naturally aspirated V8 coupe that blows the doors off some very established competition. With all that happening – and many new exciting things in the works, we hear – we had to ask: what the hell is going on at Lexus?

To find out some answers, we went to Tokyo to have a word with its global head of brand and marketing, Spiros Fotinos. Rather than meeting in a faceless corporate office, we met Spiros at the company’s brand store, Intersect, in Aoyama, a leafy, super cool fashionista area of the city.

Opened in 2013, rather than being a painfully disguised car showroom masquerading as a Zen studio (as Infiniti tried and baffled customers when it launched in the US), Intersect is an engaging, properly interesting tri-level building.

It features the de rigeur espresso bar, a fine restaurant and a suitably shimmery Blade Runner-esque function space in the basement, which features the best car-lovers WC in Tokyo. It’s all designed to give you a physical sense of what Lexus thinks it’s selling. And the short answer is: not just cars – it’s experiences.

Most people still have no idea whatsoever that an Infiniti is a brand of car, but Lexus is starting to get its story straight.

Walking us through the building, which also has outposts in Dubai and soon in New York, too, Spiros explains: ‘I think there’s things about Lexus that people know, like we produce cars of incredible quality and reliability, that we provide great customer service, and so on,’ he says. ‘But there’s also aspects of the brand that they don’t know and that is our passion for design, or our passion for craftsmanship, or our point of view on lifestyle, or luxury.

‘I think what this space does is gives them that opportunity to come into contact with the brand. There’s no car for sale here. Even the crafted collection [pens, notebooks, etc] we don’t produce it, we curate it.’ So, being blunt then, how exactly do people interact with the brand here? I mean, the radiator repeat grilles over the windows are cool, the car part frescos in the stairwells are interesting, the chairs are comfy and the coffee is good. Is that it?

Two things really. The first is to experience what Spiros refers to as Lexus Omotenashi. Translated this means ‘treating everyone like a guest in your home’. I get this bit via the coffee shop and restaurant (although I’ve never charged anyone to have a coffee or lunch at my house). But it’s also to demonstrate that true human interaction is the new real luxury in this world of VR, AR and online everything.

And this is where it gets really interesting. This human interaction is not just with the customer, but also in the way the car is conceived, built and finished. It’s a process controlled by Lexus’ Takumi masters, skilled craftsmen with over 25,000 hours of work in their given speciality.

Yes, 25k. In a world where you can supposedly become expert in almost anything after 10,000 hours of practice, you wouldn’t even be half way to being a Takumi master in Japan. It’s these guys who are dialling up the luxury in the top-end Lexus saloons and, importantly, the soul in the Lexus sports cars like the nat-asp LC V8.  And, if that Takumi name sounds familiar, it should. Nissan enlisted the help of its Takumi masters to create and build the all-conquering GTR with devastating effect.

So the signs are good at Lexus. But where does it go next? Are the TMs working their magic on more more cars like the V8 LC? Spiros isn’t sharing specifics about any new cars yet, such as the rumoured LC F, or even a replacement for the LFA. But does say that racing is now very much part of the brand offer which they will continue to explore.

So producing cars which are more exciting isn’t just good for us. It’s good business for Lexus, too, the company knows. After years of producing blend-in, invisible cars, maybe Lexus has finally found the globally acceptable – and appealing – unique face of Japanese luxury. One that blends out, not in.

‘We want to create amazing experiences for our consumers,’ says Spiros. The way that we try to do that is by looking at everything and asking ourselves, “Is it ordinary?” and if it is, how do we make it extraordinary? So this transformation of ordinary to extraordinary has started to permeate in all the thinking that goes around whether it’s the design of a car, or service, or any other thing that we do.’

Good to know then. But the true test of it working probably should not be judged by footfall in this brand shrine or any uptick in sales. But rather by when self-styled Lexii Alan Partridge and his best ex-mate Dan Moody, swap their Japanese Mercedes, as they call them, for something else. There are brands crossing their fingers right now that that trade-in isn’t for one of their cars…

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