U.S. Open is important sales driver for Lexus, hurt by economic downturn

By Liza Horan

New YorkIf the pre-U.S. Open economy was a patient anxiously awaiting treatment, the post-Open saw it become a bloody scene. The 911 call has come late. Now that the triage units have moved into action in Washington, D.C., it appears no one will be untouched by the reverberations.

One category that usually withstands fluctuations in the market is luxury goods, yet even before the U.S. Open—which gave away $20,657,000 in prize money—there were reports that the lux sector was feeling the pain.

As Vince Salisbury of Lexus plainly told me during the Open, "Car companies are suffering pretty badly—even Lexus is."

Since big-ticket items are not impulse buys, the strategy is identifying potential buyers and building relationships with them over time. There's a lot of investment in brand-building and providing experiential value. That's exactly how Lexus has leveraged tennis as a major sponsor of the U.S. Open.

Here's a look at the company's 2008 U.S. Open sponsorship program to drive car sales.

Lexus was a big presence throughout New York City during the U.S. Open. With 125 cars buzzing around town to escort players between the tournament and their hotels, the luxury brand got lots of mainstream exposure. Yet "official vehicle" status was only a part of the company's massive sponsorship, according Salisbury, the marketing events manager who also has worked on Toyota's other brands. The company's U.S. Open plan featured:

Eight vehicle displays at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center: These gave fans "a chance to interact" with the cars, Salisbury said. The main attraction, near the East Gate entrance, included a high-performance concept car (LF-A Roadster) that was shown previously only at the Chicago, Detroit and Geneva car shows and "the tennis ball car," an IS completely outfitted in about six queen-sized bed sheets' worth of tennis ball felt. Both vehicles were hot attractions and highlighted Lexus' attitude: serious about performance yet lighthearted.
    The concept car's aerodynamic styling and low profile are combined with a special underbody effect that hugs the car close to the ground at high speeds. Cut-outs in the wheel are designed to cool the breaks, and tons of built-in features added to the convertible's chic and futuristic styling. (See photos on Autoblog.)
    The yellow ball car—an IS 350—seemed to spread joy. Salisbury was plainly giddy talking about how he went about chasing down the possibility of upholstering a car in felt—a first. After calling Wilson to source ball felt, and finding a detailer to attempt covering the car, it all came together: "They covered a bumper as a test and sent it to me at the office. I was walking around to meetings with a car bumper!" 
    Fans responded, too, by getting photos taken with the car. Each fan was given a keepsake badge, featuring the car image and a code to retrieve the photo (right) at Lexus.com/tennis. Salisbury said this promotion is one of the best-performing with an 85 percent retrieval rate.

A luxury suite and tickets: Dealers and clients were invited to see the action from a comfortable, air-conditioned, catered lounge.

A 'play with the legends' event: Three weeks before the Open, Lexus invited prospects (members of the U.S. Tennis Association who do not own a Lexus; they cross-checked it against their owner database) to a free event to play with Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors, Tracy Austin, Mary Joe Fernandez and others in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Then the attendees got a backstage tour of the U.S. Open facility.
    Salisbury called it a great success: "They had a riot! They can't get that (access to the stars or the facility) so we can bring that to them with the financial resources we have."
A new car awarded to the men's and women's singles champions: The players love getting a new Lexus, Salisbury said. In the last few years, though, it hasn't been as easy as handing the champs a set of keys: "They always want it in their home country. We have to work with our international dealers." At least this year one of the victors, Serena Williams, could take domestic delivery of her new Lexus. That tennis enthusiasts—and golfers through Lexus' sponsorship of the U.S. Open golf champs—would do the same is the mission of Salisbury and team.

Advertising support: TV, print and online advertising, produced by Team One, was important for branding, entertainment and lead-generation.

"This is our fourth year [of a five-year contract that is up for renewal this fall] so we're trying to come up with fresh ideas," Salisbury said during the tournament. A special feature of last year's sponsorship was a Wii tennis tournament at Rockefeller Center. Luke and Murphy Jensen provided color commentary for a playoff among the top players, and the winner got tickets to Lexus' suite on Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Video recap on Lexus.com/tennis.)

Even though the sales cycle for a Lexus is longer than other products featured at the U.S. Open—like apparel and electronics—Salisbury said the tri-state area is huge for Lexus and this event delivers "great activation."

In other words, tennis works for Lexus.

"The demographics make sense. The U.S. Open draws an affluent crowd, which matches up with our buyers," said Salisbury, who credits a great working relationship with the U.S. Tennis Association. "It's a partnership that works. It's been fun. I've been loving the gig."

Hopefully the $700 billion bailout plan will grease the wheels enough to keep Lexus in the U.S. Open.


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