Lexus adds a personal touch to pamper owners and prospects

Lexus is strengthening its grass-roots marketing to deepen its roots with existing customers. ( AW )

"Given the market we're in, customer loyalty is more important than ever," said Brian Bolain, Lexus' national manager of interactive and automotive event marketing. "When you buy a Lexus, you are part of a family, which includes opportunities for owners."

There are 2 million Lexus owners in America, a growing group but nowhere near as big as Mercedes' 3.4 million. That means Lexus must work hard to retain its smaller customer base. Bolain declined to specify his grass-roots marketing budget.

Lexus' latest gambit is with the Fairmont Hotels chain. The properties in San Francisco and Washington will have "hybrid-living suites" with furniture, bedding and towels made from organic, sustainable and renewable resources. The minibar is stocked with "biodynamic" wines and organic farmstead cheeses.

During a stay, a guest also will get to drive a Lexus LS 600h hybrid sedan. As befits such upscale niceties, the suite costs $869 a night. Bolain expects the hybrid-living suite concept to be expanded to other Fairmont properties.

For a more routine hotel stay, Lexus owners at 13 other boutique hotels receive $100 vouchers for dining and spa services. Those hotels also will offer no-charge access to Lexus vehicles to test drive.

"We don't want to deviate too far from cars, but in the middle of the ownership cycle, we can't just abandon our customers and make the dealer do all the work," Bolain said.

Lexus also is launching a concierge service that informs owners of local food, wine and golf events sponsored by Lexus.

Then there are the little things that seem big. For instance, Lexus has made a deal with National CineMedia to offer private screenings of upcoming blockbuster movies. This summer, Lexus owners in select cities can see an advance showing of Indiana Jones - complete with dinner and popcorn - at no charge.

"It's just our way of saying thanks for being a customer," Bolain said.

On the interactive side, Lexus is doing more work with "warm-lead management," Bolain said. That involves the delicate courting of a hand-raiser culled from the Lexus Web site, with mailings and other promotional material. There is a fine line between being a tickler and a stalker, Bolain said.

Lexus also is helping dealers create evening events at showrooms. Typically, a dealer will host a local celebrity chef for a food-and-wine pairing at the dealership. "It is not threatening," Bolain said. "There is no sell job. It's just an event where there happen to be Lexuses present."

Grass-roots marketing is fiercely expensive on a per-person basis compared with the shotgun blast of a 30-second commercial during "Grey's Anatomy." But Bolain believes grass-roots marketing creates stronger ties between the owner and Lexus.

And the results of grass-roots marketing can be tracked easily. A few months after an event, Lexus can cross-check attendance lists with retail delivery orders for new vehicles, which gives a precise cost per new vehicle sold, Bolain said.

And there is a not-so-subtle punishment for an owner who sells his Lexus and loses his free parking in the Lexus Lot at an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Trudging from the back 40 and seeing his gleaming BMW parked next to SUVs full of door-dinging kids, the defector just might reconsider.

"Luxury is no longer about the things you have," Bolain said. "It's about time and conveniences. All of this becomes more important as the market contracts."

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