A Story Where There Was No Story to Tell This is a story of a campaign strategy that went beyond blandly promoting safety innovations to radically innovating how safety is promoted. It’s a story in which an aging vehicle line is rejuvenated, consumers are captivated and sales soar. Though just written, it’s a story that is already being celebrated in the media, emulated by competitors and embraced by popular culture at large. But none of this is why it’s worth reading. What’s truly compelling is that this is a story where there was no story to tell ...
Marketing Context: Dressing the Emperor In 1998, Lexus launched the RX, creating a new category of vehicle—the midsize near-luxury SUV. Vaguely egg-shaped, built to handle like a car, the RX stood out against a uniform lineup of truck-like, boxy SUVs. Sales were staggering. Nearly a decade later, competitors are still catching up. Since 1998, Mercedes-Benz, Acura, BMW, Infiniti and Volvo have all introduced RXs of their own—smooth-handling, rounded SUVs with upscale features. The launch of the 2008 RX 350 approaching, Lexus wanted to make a splash and give the category-leading RX breathing room from the ever-growing phalanx of copycats.
Problem was, the RX hadn’t changed much over the years. Sure, there were a few styling touchups, maybe some incremental interior updates but, parked beside each other, the 1998 RX 300 and the 2008 RX 350 were largely indistinguishable. In essence, what Lexus was asking for was a pure marketing solution—an Emperor’s-New-Clothes sales pitch the public would actually buy. To reestablish the RX’s appeal and uniqueness, the strategic plan for the campaign would be developed around three complementary objectives:
Get Attention: With little changed about the new RX, consumers and press alike would ignore the vehicle. To generate media attention and ensure that the vehicle would register with consumers, the campaign had to create new news with the same old product story.
Inspire Interest: Attracting attention was a start, but even the best product placement, catchphrase or marketing ploy stopped there. To provoke consumers, drawing them into interactive media and eliciting leads, the RX needed to pique their interest with an original and compelling claim.
Drive Sales: Making consumers aware of and interested in the RX would only accentuate the final challenge: actually selling the vehicle and holding onto market share. With few tangible differences to draw consumers’ attention to the current model, the entire sales strategy relied on creating an idea so convincing that it alone would motivate consumers to act.
Come March, Lexus wouldn’t be launching an SUV, it would be launching an idea.
Research and Planning: The Car, The Driver, The Future and Back Again Planning for the campaign focused on three areas: the vehicle, the demographics and the future. The first two demanded research and analytics. The last—spotting what was on the horizon—was a gamble.
The Vehicle: Upon poring over the RX inside and out, every update was cataloged. The strategic team imagined glamorizing the smallest cosmetic changes (now in chrome!) and glorifying incremental feature advances (auto-dimming side and rearview mirrors!). Nothing jumped out.
The Demographics: Years of owner profiles, surveys and product clinics confirmed the obvious: Consumers gravitated toward the RX for comfort, handling and value. Nevertheless, one insight stood out: 87% of RX buyers were married; 98% of those buyers had at least one child. Focusing on this subset, further research revealed that—beyond comfort, handling and value—these buyers cared about safety. Safety? It wasn’t exactly original or exciting, but it was a start.
The Future: Accurately predicting what would appeal to RX customers was impossible; speculating where the SUV market would go in the next few years, however, offered an encouraging clue. SUVs make headlines for one reason: safety issues. High off the ground, they’re notorious for rolling over. Bulky and awkward, they have the largest blind spots on the road. This trend, in concert with the demographics-based insight about safety, presented an opportunity. Unfortunately, it meant returning to ...
The Vehicle, Again: This time, we ignored aesthetic details and examined the vehicle strictly in terms of safety. The RX was already packed with the latest safety features—stuff the competition typically waited years (or until government mandate) to include. Strategically, this advanced equipment presented an opportunity to differentiate the RX from the rest of the pack. Focusing with this precise lens, certain elements seemed promising—like auto-dimming mirrors. But most had been around for years, like the backup camera. While impressive, the list of new and old safety features wasn’t news. To succeed, the campaign needed to incorporate a variety of dynamic features under one persuasive appeal.
Key Insight: Those Other Drivers It wasn’t much, but safety was all we had. Demographics revealed the opportunity; the car possessed the potential and—we believed—the market was poised for the message. Brainstorming, we stumbled on an anecdotal bit of Lexus safety trivia—a curious philosophical brand-wide quirk: Lexus drivers consider themselves the safest on the road. “I’m a safe driver,” they say. “Lexus drivers in general are safe drivers. It’s the others that scare me.”
Suddenly, the initial strategy became clear: Don’t offer them a tank with airbags and crumple zones to help them survive an accident, offer them an agile, high-tech machine that would avoid accidents in the first place! Granted, it meant championing the RX as damn-near clairvoyant, but the vehicle could boast plenty of preventative safety features. Returning to our list, we circled 14 that made sense.
What didn’t make sense was listing them one-by-one in a 30-second commercial. To package the features in a proprietary way, they needed a name. This was where the word “active” came into play—and where a tactful semantic maneuver catalyzed the campaign strategy. These features weren’t reactive, mitigating damage in an accident; they were proactive, helping avoid one altogether. In essence, they were safety features that helped actively avoid accidents. What if they were … actively safe? Faces at Lexus lit up.
Bringing the Campaign to Life: Strategy You Can See Though a new message for the RX, safety has long been commoditized in automotive advertising. The word is almost invisible. Volvo might have made headlines back in the 1980s, crushing cars to demonstrate their toughness, but that was no longer enough. Features that were once eye-catching are now mandatory.
Fortunately, the “Actively Safe” strategy ruled out the standard safety clichés—dramatic crash tests, slow-motion airbags, paramedics and flashing ambulance lights. These images were reactive, not “Actively Safe.” The campaign needed to illustrate safety from a new angle. But how do you show a collision that never happened? Or a narrowly avoided rollover? Why, you turn back time ...
Kicking off the campaign with a child in a hospital bed, the scene in Hospital literally unfolds as staff reconstruct the entire set in a series of tactful modifications. Walls spin, a tiled floor vanishes in place of carpet, and viewers are transported to the child’s room.
Hydrantopens to a battered RX on a city street. Before the scene even sinks in, pedestrians artfully transform the busy urban set into a country estate. As a spewing hydrant morphs into an elegant fountain, an unscathed RX is parked in the driveway.
RX in Window presented life-size RXs crashing through real-world storefront windows. Triggered by pedestrians passing motion sensors near busy intersections, the imagery subsequently repairs itself, clearing the spidered glass to reveal a pristine RX.
Bringing “Actively Safe” to life in print, RX Window Insert featured a clear panel, allowing magazine readers to literally “see ahead” to the next page. Impervious to a textual assault of driving hazards, the RX in Force Field is shielded by descriptions of “Actively Safe” features.
Two mini-documentaries, Safer Snowfall and Safer Steel, profile the preventative safety efforts of bridge engineers and avalanche experts. Offering TiVo viewers the chance to request more information, the associative pieces accentuate the RX’s preventative safety philosophy.
To ensure the creative work was as remarkable as the “Actively Safe” statement, Hydrant and Hospital were filmed entirely without computer-generated imagery. Making of... a behind-the-scenes piece for dealer showrooms, captured the intricacy and authenticity, affording consumers an intriguing and intimate perspective of the campaign.
Results: The Moral of the Story Getting Attention: Before the campaign, the RX 350 was without a tale to tell. Afterward, the “Actively Safe” story took on a life of its own. Brandweek published two separate pieces—a glowing review praising the “Hydrant” spot as a “postmodern” solution in which “words and pictures complement each other perfectly”—and a second piece highlighting the campaign strategy. Other media caught on, with mentions appearing on Yahoo! and network affiliates nationwide. The press was encouraging, but did people notice?
Studies confirmed that consumers weren’t just paying attention, they remembered the work, awarding the “Actively Safe” TV spots strong scores in Branded Recall (Ad Recall + Brand Linkage), topping category norm and key competitors. Capping it all off was a piece in The Wall Street Journal affirming the prescience of the RX work—the government, it seemed, was indeed poised to make a push toward mandating further safety measures on SUVs. As sales soared, it turned out that as a result of the “Actively Safe” strategy, not only did the RX have a story to tell, it was a story with a happy ending.
Inspiring Interest: Traffic surpassed Lexus’ average launch microsite numbers as well as projected numbers for ActivelySafe.com. The “Actively Safe” Web site overlay drove a 31% increase in RX “Build Your Lexus” configuration page visits versus the prior month. Increased visits to “Build Your Lexus” directly correlates with higher sales.
Driving Sales: Even in the face of competitive launches, the campaign achieved Lexus’ ambitious new sales objectives—representing a 22% jump in volume. Concurrently, the RX held on to its highest-ever market share, dominating the segment with a 40% share.