By Dale Rutledge
June 14, 2019

When moviegoers first saw King T’Challa in action as Black Panther it was a real showstopper: The Marvel comic book character clings to the top of a sleek new Lexus LC sports coupe as he surfs through the busy streets of Busan, South Korea, in a high-speed chase that ultimately destroys his remote-controlled ride.

The scene’s a crowdpleaser, to be sure—and it successfully sells Lexus’ image as a maker of high-performance luxury sports cars to a younger audience. Starting this weekend, with a prominent role in Sony’s sci-fi franchise Men in Black: International, the Japanese automotive company hopes to add another hit to its credits, giving it supporting roles in summer blockbusters for two years running.

But betting on a movie’s success is a game that most veteran studio executives have a hard time playing, let alone luxury automotive brands. And no matter how much money is sunk into a project, there are no guarantees at the box office.

For instance, Black Panther could have been a big miss for the Japanese luxury automaker. The titular main character, who rules a fictional technologically advanced African nation, was relatively unknown to most audiences prior to the movie’s release. Lexus executives weren’t allowed to read the script before signing on to support the film, giving the company no guarantee of how its brand would appear on screen. The production also wanted six coupes to use for filming, which forced Lexus to provide custom-built prototypes that can cost upwards of $1 million each, since the actual car was not being produced.

For Lexus, whose corporate parent Toyota isn’t known for risk taking, the gamble paid off. Black Panther blew away expectations to become 2018’s highest-grossing movie in the U.S., earning more than $700 million domestically, and nearly $1.4 billion worldwide. And the film didn’t just appeal to comic book fans, it also over-indexed with African-Americans, given that Black Panther was the first big-budget Marvel Studio’s movie to feature a black actor as the lead.

“Lexus has always been committed to celebrating the rich diversity of our customers, but Black Panther catapulted it to a new level,” says Lisa Materazzo, Lexus’ vice president of marketing.

Betting on blockbusters

With Men in Black: International, Lexus is taking less of a risk. Sony has put considerable resources into breathing new life into its $2 billion franchise, which now stars Chris Hemsworth (Marvel’s hammer-wielding Thor) and Tessa Thompson, who proved a winning duo together in Thor: Ragnarok.

In the new MIB film, Lexus’ aggressive RC F sports coupe races through London, helping agents escape threatening aliens, before transforming into a jet. Lexus’ RX Hybrid and LX SUVs are also featured in scenes with alien encounters.

In both MIB and Panther, Lexus is portrayed as a future-forward designer of high-tech vehicles, a positioning that promotes the company’s newest slogan “Experience Amazing.” “The beauty of film integrations is that none of the traditional rules apply,” Materazzo says. “It’s an opportunity to partner with filmmakers to imagine all of the possibilities.”

This isn’t necessarily new ground for Lexus, which has introduced other high-tech products like a hoverboard and sports yacht concept over the past several years to expand the brand’s appeal to affluent buyers in the sought-after 45- to 55-year-old market.

Lexus is looking to use films as a way to launch new emotionally engaging campaigns around the release of its new sports cars and luxury sedans and SUVs. It especially sees movies as a way to tap into conversations around cultural events.

But forcing your brand into the story doesn’t come cheap. In addition to providing expensive prototypes to filmmakers for Panther, Lexus produced a comic book and custom videos. It also bought a 30-second Super Bowl spot for the tie-in and LC 500 launch that cost the company more than $5 million.

But when Marvel’s movies have made a combined $21 billion worldwide to date (including the most recent Avengers installment), you take the risk.

A strategy as old as Bond, James Bond

If Lexus seems like it’s siding up to well-dressed secret agents, there’s a reason: The brand is focused on pushing the performance of its cars, technological innovation and style—while having some fun. That kind of limits just who gets to drive its hero cars.

“We consider how our product aligns with the character who drives it,” Materazzo says, and “how the integration might enable us to illuminate a core brand truth within the story.”

The automaker wasn’t specifically looking to get into the superhero business, though Black Panther was expected to be groundbreaking in bringing the character to the big screen, with Chadwick Boseman as the first black actor to headline a big-budget superhero film (which also featured a largely African-American cast).

So putting Black Panther in a LS 500 luxury sedan and LC 500 sport coupe in the film and marketing materials was akin to pairing James Bond with Aston Martin.

But moviegoers haven’t always embraced the films Lexus has supported with product placement. In 2017, the same year “Experience Amazing” launched, Lexus developed the designs for a futuristic jet for Luc Besson’s pricey sci-fi fantasy Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which didn’t take off, earning just $226 million worldwide.

On the other hand, when the films do work, they clearly have helped improve Lexus’ brand image, and boost its sales. Lexus’s “Long Live the King” Super Bowl spot helped boost searches for its LS sedan by 2,500%, according to auto site Kelley Blue Book shortly after the ad launched. And online searches for Lexus rose 15% the week after Panther’s debut, while the LC 500 was up 10% on its own, according to Autotrader.

Lexus recorded its best global sales year in 2018, moving 698,330 vehicles off dealership lots, an increase of 4.5%—a tough figure for anyone to reach, in what’s becoming a crowded luxury auto market.

“Auto companies partnering on movies is more about exposure than sales,” says Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader. This is true especially of summer blockbusters that attract millions of moviegoers, she adds, noting that Nissan’s affiliation with the Star Wars films enabled it to have a themed auto show exhibit, “which surely drew lots of kids with their parents in tow to an exhibit they might otherwise have skipped.”

In addition to the Black Panther franchise—which Lexus isn’t expected to give up, though a sequel isn’t expected until 2021—the automaker will likely appear in future Marvel movies. Marvel Studios’ marketing mavens prefer long-term relationships with brands. For instance, Audi has been the vehicle of choice for Iron Man since 2008. Other Avengers films have also featured Acura.

But Lexus also has eyes on other franchises, as evidenced by its high-visibility role in MIB. The automaker says it doesn’t have a “strict rule” for how many films it wants to rally around per year, “one high profile partnership per year (feels) about right,” Materazzo says. “We are actively considering several possibilities.”

Whether MIB tanks or soars, Lexus’ diversification is a smart strategy for Hollywood tentpole brand integrations. Because even without all of Black Panther‘s success, if the movie proved one thing it’s that you can’t stay in Wakanda forever.

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