Borrowed Interest

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Not so long ago, I was at a press event where a new four-door pickup was rolled out. In the explanation of why anyone should give a rat's ass about this vehicle, it was explained that the new truck "should not be mistaken for a sport-utility vehicle." Now I realize that the way in which new products are presented to the press is often skewered by the collective ridiculousness of sales, marketing, and public relations. However, if I hear or read a statement like this one, I've got to believe that, given the way most companies operate, at least 50 people must have endorsed or signed-off on it—at least some of whom actually have input into the creation of new products. If they're so damn concerned that I might think that their great new pickup is an SUV (a fine line that's ultimately somewhat ridiculously drawn), it leads me to believe that they aren't convinced that the pickup is distinctive enough to allow me to discern this distinction.

Moreover, defining something based on what it's not doesn't do much to tell anyone what it is. Even if all those awful Cutlass Cieras from my adolescence were not my father's Oldsmobiles, I have yet to find someone who can explain to me exactly what they were. (The fact that my grandmother did own one is probably my best clue to date.)

The point is thus: If you can't clearly define what something is, it probably isn't very good; and things that get defined by what they're not tend to not be something else too, as in not good. Of course, some people in this business think that the solution is to define yourself strictly in the terms of your competition. But this makes it damn hard to acquire any sort of identity of your own.

I recently drove the poster-child for stolen identity, the Lexus IS 300. Not unlike the Lexus LS 430 is Toyota's Mercedes S-class clone, the IS 300 is essentially a thinly disguised copy of the BMW 3-series. It's got approximately the same dimensions, a little more horsepower from a similar I-6 engine and a price that's in the same ballpark. It's fun to drive, nicer than a fully optioned Camry, and looks a bit different (though not too much different) than the rest of its class.

But what's troubling to me is that at a press introduction for this vehicle, when I started counting the number of times that the Toyota/Lexus people said "BMW," it was much like the time in high school chemistry when I tried to count the number of times my two-pack-a-day-smoking teacher coughed: I quickly lost count. It's clear that Toyota set out to build the better BMW from the get-go, perhaps like oh-so-many other vehicles that seem to exist for the sole purpose of winning head-to-head numerical comparisons on Web sites like Carpoint and Intellichoice. Sure, the IS 300 is a capable car; it's got every right to exist in the marketplace. The people who designed and built it should be proud because it's a car that will, no doubt, sell well and have a high resale value due to Toyota's reputation for unsurpassed quality. (Which I believe, is Toyota/Lexus's only real identity.)

One Lexus executive described the IS 300 as an "alternative to the yuppie-mobile"; evidently Toyota wants its Lexus brand to be known for something beyond quality, what with quality being required in a luxury car. But copying Bimmers and Benzes won't do much to establish any sort of distinctive image. While Toyota has some very funny and well-executed TV ads that depict the IS 300 in a way that I'll just describe as unique, their attitude, vis-à-vis the product, seems as contrived as the IS 300's aluminum pedals and F1-style (i.e., steering wheel mounted) "E-shift" controls are pretentious.

At the core of the Lexus brand is a strategy that replicates other successful luxury cars. If it doesn't change this underlying identity—perhaps like Toyota has done for the core brand with its new youth market products (Echo, Celica, and MR-2 Spyder)—I doubt we'll ever see any truly innovative luxury car with a slanted L on the hood. The problem then? Perhaps none. Toyota is obviously moving the Lexus metal, though I think a lot of those buyers may just be defining themselves by what they're not: Cadillac owners.

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