Lexus Looks to Ride Marvel's `Black Panther' Back to Luxury Lead

(Bloomberg) -- In Marvel Studios’ upcoming “Black Panther” blockbuster, the superhero king of Wakanda surfs through a city clinging to the roof of his Lexus LC 500 supercar as his sister pilots it remotely. The Toyota Motor Corp. brand is trying to use the excitement of that cameo to end a seven-year drought as U.S. luxury sales leader.

The prominent role in the Walt Disney Co. movie, the first major superhero film to feature a black actor in the lead role and a largely black cast, is no accident, says Cooper Ericksen, Lexus’s vice president of marketing. To succeed in shifting toward a more sporty, high-performance image, Lexus needs to reach a new audience.

“We are going after a younger customer, and just from a demographic standpoint, the younger you go, the more culturally diverse the population gets,” Ericksen said in an interview after showing “Black Panther”-themed clips this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “The task to hit our sales plan really comes from bringing a lot of new customers into the brand.”

As the U.S. shifts further away from a majority white country and baby boomers age and retire, companies are scrambling to position themselves with younger buyers who are increasingly non-white. Spending by black, Asian and Hispanic consumers is growing faster than that of whites in the $19.5 trillion U.S. economy. African-Americans in particular are more frequent moviegoers.

The movie, set for release Feb. 16 in the U.S. and Canada, is expected to debut with weekend ticket sales of $120 million and take in $335 million during its domestic run in theaters, according to analysts at Box Office Pro, who have been raising their forecasts. That would make it one of the top 10 pictures of the year in the U.S. Advance sales set a record for a Marvel movie at Fandango.com. Disney’s hasn’t released its own forecast yet.

Story: Hollywood Faces the Growing Box Office Power of Black Audiences

Marketing to minorities can be tricky, said Sonja Martin Poole, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, who conducts research on multicultural marketing and cited a recent H&M apparel ad that offended black customers and had to be pulled.

Lexus has long courted those customers and won’t be seen as pandering, she said.

“There have been a lot of different brands that have made serious mistakes when trying to be inclusive or trying to attract African-American buyers,” said Poole, who plans to take her teenage sons to see the movie next month. “You just have to be careful and you have to know your consumer and you have to come off as authentic. That’s really the trick.”

The idea for the Black Panther tie-in came from Walton Isaacson, the agency Lexus uses for its marketing to black and Hispanic consumers, Ericksen said. The campaign isn’t necessarily targeted at black buyers as much as it is aimed at younger consumers, who are more likely to be non-white, he said. About a third of Lexus customers are non-white.

Super Bowl Ad

In addition to offering a special model of the Lexus LC with a color inspired by the Black Panther, the automaker has the superhero appearing in a Super Bowl commercial for the upcoming LS sedan. Lexus aims to triple sales of that model this year, Ericksen said. Lexus trailed Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz brand in U.S. luxury sales in 2017 and hasn’t led the category since 2010.

Movie tie-ins for car companies are nothing new. James Bond has been driving Aston Martins since 1964, amid dalliances with other models. General Motors Co. vehicles, particularly the Chevrolet Camaro, have benefited from starring roles in “Transformers” pictures, and Audi, which is gaining on Lexus in U.S. sales, was Tony Stark’s mode of transportation in three “Iron Man” movies and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

And with spending by minorities growing faster than outlays by the white population, it makes sense to work with Hollywood studios on movies that appeal to those groups.

PepsiCo Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. partnered with 21st Century Fox Inc. in 2016 with “Hidden Figures,” about three black women at NASA struggling to be recognized for their engineering work on the space program. The small-budget movie was a hit at the box office and was nominated for three Oscars.

Microsoft Corp. got great exposure for its Surface Pro computers, mobile phones and Bing search engine in the 2017 Universal Pictures hit “Get Out,” a horror film about a young black man heading off for the weekend to meet his white girlfriend’s parents. The picture has taken in $254.7 million in worldwide ticket sales.

African-Americans are also bigger cinema fans, accounting for 15 percent of frequent moviegoers in 2016 but just 12 percent of the population, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. In 2017, black buying power hit about $1.2 trillion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

“I could see this being an investment in the younger market,” said Poole, the marketing professor. “Even though the 15- and 18-year-olds aren’t going to be able to buy a Lexus, by doing this you are implanting this aspiration. It’s a mythical car, and something that young boys are going to desire.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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