The Lexus LC 500 has been the centerpiece of the tie-in. Photo credit: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION
DALLAS — Want a look at the daring new Lexus? Go to the movies.
Lexus has certainly been able to capitalize on its timely tie-in with Black Panther, the Marvel superhero film that has emerged as a cultural phenomenon, not to mention a critical and commercial hit.
But going into the project, a two-year collaboration, was a bit of a risk, given the conservative tendencies of the Lexus brand and the ever-present danger of a heavily hyped movie falling flat.
To start, timing wasn’t on Lexus’ side. When the movie was being filmed, the LC coupe that is featured in a breathless chase scene on the streets of Busan, South Korea, wasn’t yet in production, said MaryJane Kroll, media manager for Lexus marketing. The automaker’s marketing team had to persuade its top engineers to hand over some early LC prototypes, which are hand built.
Kroll: What will message be?
“It’s never an easy process to say, ‘I need six of your precious flagship cars … and by the way, we have to be willing to destroy them,’ ” Kroll told Automotive News.
Another problem with the long lead time: Lexus didn’t have a chance to review a script to make sure the storyline fit with its corporate values.
“I think, for us, it really came down to trust in Marvel and that they would take great care in bringing Black Panther’s story to the big screen,” said Kroll. “We didn’t know exactly what the ultimate message would be.”
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Disney’s Marvel Studios did have a track record of working with automakers. The Iron Man series featured Audi’s R8 supercar, and Audi models also showed up in Captain America: Civil War in 2016 and Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. The Ford EcoSport appeared in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And going back to 2012, Acura provided several models for The Avengers, including a concept version of the yet-to-be-built NSX.
Even so, for a luxury automaker such as Lexus to collaborate on something as edgy as a comic-book movie required a lot of confidence in its own product and in Marvel Studios to sustain that track record.
Crowley: Build on success.
“I think that around movies, you never know if it will be a blockbuster or will be a flop, if the character will truly be organic to you and your brand,” said Greta Crowley, vice president of marketing for Cox Automotive.
“The Marvel fans are so passionate; I think they’d be quick to call out something that didn’t feel authentic to the comic-book story or the hero,” Crowley said.
The idea for a collaboration and product placement with Marvel and Black Panther came from Lexus’ multicultural marketing agency, Walton Isaacson.
“We definitely were not on the hunt for a way to partner with a superhero,” said Kroll. But the Black Panther character was so compelling, and the comic’s fans had waited so long for him to come to the big screen, that Lexus wanted in on what was sure to be a cultural event, she said.
To connect with core Marvel and Black Panther fans leading up to the release, Lexus commissioned an original graphic novel, Black Panther: Soul of a Machine, featuring the LC 500 and a Lexus takumi master craftsman as heroes.
Super Bowl twofer
In the end, everything fell in line. The Feb. 16 premiere of the movie came soon after the launch of Lexus’ redesigned flagship LS sedan, with a tee-up from a Black Panther-themed Super Bowl ad for Lexus.
The ad was a twofer, with a chase sequence featuring the superhero perched atop an LC and later, Black Panther’s alter ego, King T’Challa of Wakanda, showing up at a fictional global forum in the LS sedan. The two vehicles share Lexus’ new global platform.
From the beginning, Black Panther was expected to do well at the box office, given Marvel’s history of high-grossing movies. But its huge opening weekend in the U.S. exceeded expectations, Kroll said, and the movie is now part of a global marketing effort in Japan, Southeast Asia, South America, Russia and South Africa.
Lexus commissioned an original graphic novel.
According to Variety, Black Panther had grossed about $430 million by the middle of last week to become the 17th-highest-grossing film in history domestically; the international take was about $760 million.
The film and the product tie-in brought an explosion of ad impressions across TV, social media and in theaters.
For the week following the film’s debut, online searches for Lexus at shopping site Autotrader were up 15 percent from the previous week. Online traffic for the LC 500 specifically was up 10 percent, Autotrader said.
Just as important for Lexus, Kroll said, was the film’s upbeat take on America’s multicultural future. Lexus already does well with minority buyers, she said, and presenting the LC coupe alongside an African superhero helped reinforce the brand’s image as an aspirational product.
Though the tie-in was more than a multicultural marketing play, she said, “There’s obviously a very special appeal of this character to anyone who has been part of a minority historically. So you can’t overlook the importance of that core audience.”
Black Panther is someone who breaks barriers and comes from a technologically advanced nation, and Lexus sees itself with those same values, she said.
“We really saw a very clear alignment between the character and the country that he comes from and the Lexus brand,” said Kroll.
The message of a resource-rich nation reaching out to help others “is so timely and something people need right now,” said Kroll.
Cox’s Crowley said that now that Lexus has shown it can reach a broader audience through a medium such as Black Panther, the collaboration is worth building on.
“I think it’s important to keep the thread, especially if you’ve seen that it works,” she said.
“Because you start to build a relationship with that audience, and it gives you the green light to be able to start talking to them outside of those type of platforms.”