No, this image is not a mutant asparagus tip. It’s the budding (pun intended) of a new luxury car brand–get it? The harsh reality was that many people didn’t “get it” in July 1989 when this ad appeared in Car and Driver. The Infiniti pre-launch advertising was in stark contrast to the Lexus teaser spread that appeared in the same issue. Though both brands set out to define Japanese luxury, even before the cars went on sale, a look at the print ads makes it pretty clear why only one of these brands connected effectively with U.S. luxury car buyers and enjoyed phenomenal success right out of the gate.
Both Nissan and Toyota were working through the summer of 1989 to augment their initial PR efforts and product reveals to drum up interest in the new luxury brands. Teaser campaigns were initiated to keep excitement levels high, and get the right sort of people talking about the cars, with the hope that healthy showroom traffic would result once the cars actually became available.
A logical and cost-effective choice to reach opinion leaders back in 1989 was print advertising, including in the automotive buff books. And the ads actually had copy that you needed to read. Shocking concept today, but that’s how it was done back then. The toll free phone numbers for consumers to call for more information was another “modern” direct marketing approach gaining traction in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the digital tsunami engulfed marketing.
But while the media and targeting strategies were similar, the ads themselves couldn’t have been more different.
Though derided as just the “Rocks and Trees” campaign, the Infiniti ads actually featured all sorts of oddball Zen-like images, including this budding stalk and even bales of hay. The somber copy focused on under-promising and over-delivering, but mostly in vague terms centering around engineers spending lots of money and taking many years to make things “feel right.” Seriously, spending years on making the pull of the door handle feel right?!?! Additionally, Infiniti cars could be plucked at random off the assembly line if they “didn’t feel right.” Not particularly comforting, really.
Likewise, the Infiniti ownership experience was promised to be different as well, with potential customers being forewarned that dealers would spend a portion of each and every day calling customers to see if they liked their Infiniti. In 1989, this seemed like bizarre overkill to say the least, with most luxury buyers not really looking to be continually checked-in on by their dealer.
Lexus also focused on the details that separated their new luxury car from the rest, but described in the most specific terms, with the benefits clearly showcased. In fact, the whole launch approach for Toyota’s luxury flagship brand was to highlight the painstaking care that was lavished on every detail, not to make it “feel right” but to make it the best solution to achieve a clearly stated goal.
In the case of this ad, the focus was on aerodynamic efficiency, both where you couldn’t see it (under the car) and where you could (low coefficient of drag combined with tasteful design). And why would a prospective customer care? Lexus pointed out two key benefits: 1) the car was very quiet and 2) the wind-cheating shape helped make it very efficient for its size and performance, allowing the LS400 to dodge the gas guzzler tax. That last fact alone was a big deal for luxury buyers as 1990 rolled around.
Another advantage of the Lexus ad was that the new car was clearly visible for all to see, along with praise from Car and Driver, the very magazine where the ad appeared. The reader was left with no doubt as to the thoroughness of Toyota’s approach to creating an all-new luxury car, along with how and why they focused on each of those elements. It was the perfect set-up for positioning the Lexus brand, and one that its tagline summed up perfectly: The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection indeed, and that included the brand’s pre-launch advertising.