Lexus, whose sales for the first time are falling, made the critical bet to tweak its current look rather than introduce a bold new design.
"It is not an `Oh my God,"' said automotive consultant Jim Wangers, who has tested the car. "If I'm driving a '94 [Lexus], I'll see this and I'll say, `What do I need a new Lexus for? It looks like mine.'*"
In a carefully staged sequence, Lexus will unveil the model Sept. 30 at a Miami auto show; begin a pre-launch ad campaign in mid-October; and start a launch campaign in November, when the model goes on sale.
Lexus already has made one move to ensure that the new model sells: It is expected to maintain the '94 price of $51,200 for the '95. That's a reaction to intense competition, including some price cuts, from rivals like Mercedes-Benz of North America and BMW of North America.
Regardless, Lexus is no longer the value it was five years ago, when the original LS 400 sold for $35,000. The rise in the yen means Lexus is no longer cheaper than a prestigious European marque.
Improved products and pricing have driven Mercedes sales up 20.5% and BMW sales up 11.1% through August, while Lexus sales dropped 4.9% to 59,211 cars in the midst of a booming car market. Lexus has sold 15,985 LS 400s so far this year, down just 2.5% partly due to subsidized lease deals; more than half of Lexus models are leased.
Luxury cars also face the growing popularity of upscale sport-utility vehicles.
Mercedes plans to begin marketing a sport-utility vehicle by 1997, and General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac may bring in an entry by the end of the decade.
All these circumstances make the new car critical for Lexus.
"It is our flagship. It sets the tone for our division," said a Lexus spokesman. He and Lexus executives declined to discuss details about the car or advertising.
Lexus is already the top-spending luxury car advertiser, putting $137.7 million into measured media last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting. And the Toyota Motor Sales USA division is planning a Lexus-size fall campaign through Team One, El Segundo, Calif.
The agency chose two of the most respected directors in the business. The high-budget commercials were shot in Africa, with three pre-launch ads directed by South African director Peter Smillie. He is known for the beautiful if annoying MCI Communications Corp. campaign from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, featuring actress Anna Paquin.
The three launch ads were directed by the trendy Indian director Tarsem.
The tenor of Lexus ads is not changing, said Scott Gilbert, co-chairman-CEO of Team One. "The advertising is dramatic, but not quirky or odd. It's definitely car advertising focusing on new cars."
Tom Cordner, Team One co-chairman and creative director, said the advertising is "more emotional" than past Lexus work.
Mr. Cordner said Lexus is not changing its creative direction. Lexus' advertising will never abandon elegance in its ads or "The pursuit of elegance" tagline, he said.
The LS 400 launch comes amid turmoil at Team One, where six creative department members have left in the past two months.
A Lexus spokesman said the changes were "an internal situation" at the agency, adding Lexus "continues to be satisfied" with Team One.
Toyota has a history of sticking with agencies. The Toyota division has worked with just two agencies-now-defunct Clinton E. Frank Inc., Los Angeles, from 1962-75, and what is now Saatchi & Saatchi DFS/Pacific, Torrance, Calif.-since its major U.S. marketing initiative began.
When Toyota created Lexus, Saatchi created Team One to keep the new business in-house.