Q&A: Why Lexus Is Spreading Sustainability Message to African Americans

So far, Toyota’s luxury imprint has shown it has been able to sustain its message of sustainability in a volatile economic market that hasn’t been kind to cars. Lexus now sells three vehicles that feature hybrid technology, has a manufacturing facilities with a zero landfill policy and a commitment to using sustainable and recycled materials in the building of vehicles. It even has a Lexus Hybrid Living Web portal dedicated to celebrating “the ethos of luxury eco design: living life with less impact on the earth while enjoying maximum luxury, comfort and style.” Recently, Lexus turned its green marketing communications to the African American community. In February, the brand returned as sponsor of Essence magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood pre-Oscars awards luncheon honoring actresses Halle Berry, Diahann Carroll and Taraji P. Henson along with director Gina Prince-Bythewood. At the event, the Torrance, Calif.-based automaker hosted a Walton|Isaacson-designed green gifting suite to show off its eco-friendliest models and align with other brands in the space. Brandweek spoke to MaryJane Kroll, Lexus National Advertising, about the intersection of marketing green and luxury to the African American market.

Brandweek: What does “green luxury” mean to consumers? It sounds like an oxymoron because we think of green as cutting back and sacrificing.
MaryJane Kroll: Our environmental commitment is incredibly important to us and a key tenet of our corporate philosophy on down to our products’ manufacturing processes to what we try to do in our facilities. It’s something we’re always working on and always trying to communicate. Our hybrid products in the luxury realm obviously establish us as a leader because we don’t have any competition, or at least not until recently with Cadillac SUV hybrids. So this has been an area where we’ve been able to establish our leadership and continue to build upon it as we introduce more products and as we build lifestyle programs around them to help people understand what the offering is.

If Prius is everyone’s understanding of what hybrid means, it’s actually a different story from a luxury standpoint. That’s the starting point for [our] eco [program].  

BW: How is your message different for this audience?
MK: For our African American marketing efforts, the primary campaign emphasis is on “Luxury Awaits.” It’s targeted toward women and it’s the idea of rewarding yourself–you’ve arrived. You’ve worked hard, this is something you deserve and we’re poised to give you this amazing luxury experience. Now I’m going to borrow a word that sounds cliche, but the convergence of African American and green for us kind of happened organically. Both because we were partnering with Essence for Black Women in Hollywood and we wanted to provide our guests a more authentic Lexus experience. Last year, we felt it was the right place for us. Coming back, we said let’s go deeper, let them know who we are a little more.

BW: How do the negative effects of the environment impact minorities differently?
MK: If you are a person who is a minority or a person of color, you’re more likely to live near polluted places. You’re more likely to have power plants where you live. We’ve participated in the TED conference the past several years, and there was this speaker by the name of Majora Carter and she founded an organization called The Sustainable South Bronx. She gave a talk that sort of lifted a veil of information that I don’t think people had before that time. She was a lifelong South Bronx resident and saw that she had been personally living near these wasteland parks that had been built over or neglected.

There’s a real strong sense of community among African Americans where they want to help each other and they really respect companies that step in and offer that help. Obviously, there’s been a [green] groundswell in the general market as well, but there’s [also] been an added layer in the African American community. We’ve seen increases in awareness and concern among the African American community for both the environment and environmental products.

BW: Does the African American community see the trickle-down effect from sponsoring celebrity events? Halle Berry and Queen Latifah can afford to buy a Lexus.
MK: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a trickle down effect, but rather part of a communication strategy. At Lexus we don’t seek celebrity affiliations or sponsorships unless it really makes sense strategically. Black Women in Hollywood perfectly embodies our core message — to celebrate the achievements of African American women. The added benefit is that it’s an opportunity to expose the Lexus brand and key products to an audience with the power to start trends and potentially affect the buying habits of consumers.

BW: What other targeted marketing do you have planned?
MK: We have a series of listening lounges where we feature an up and coming artist. In our Los Angeles lounge we did it at a green venue called The Smog Shop and we featured the RX 450h, the new generation of the current RX 400h. A few 400h’s were sold directly as a result of that event. And we’ve started to do some print advertising, starting with Essence’s first-ever Green issue for April. And partnered with Essence and Black Women in Hollywood for a microsite that focuses on an eco message. The cross-section of the two is relatively new, but it’s really been a long time coming.

In your research, how do African Americans index compared with the general market in terms of green opinions and behaviors?

MK: I think in terms of hybrids, African Americans have lagged behind the general market in terms of growing interest and awareness, but the rate of increase is much faster. Part of that is a value proposition we see when gas prices go up. We see that in the luxury space, too–you wouldn’t think a luxury car buyer would be that concerned with the price of gas, but they actually really are!  We’re taking great strides to educate our customers on what benefits hybrids offer beyond just the obvious of the fuel economy and maybe the slightly less obvious of reduced tailpipe emissions.

BW: Lexus has made it’s way into rap lyrics alongside Mercedes, Rolls, Cadillac and other luxury rides. Have Lexus hybrids hit the hip-hop lexicon?
MK: That’s a good question. Not that I know of, but if there’s a lyric, we will find it.