Adventures in branding: Lexus brings the sales-free showroom to New York

At Intersect in Manhattan, you can sip lattes and admire cars. You just can't buy them

Feel like an espresso or a cocktail in an airy art gallery? How about a first look at a "Back to the Future"-style hovercraft for skateboarders, or the latest street fashions by an up-and coming designer? At Intersect by Lexus, the expansive venue set to open on in Manhattan’s meatpacking district in 2016 or 2017, you can do all that.

What you can’t do is buy a car.  

The new outlet  represents  the car maker’s latest attempt at reinventing the auto showroom as a boutique café, bistro and arts center.

The prototype for this branding experiment opened in the summer of 2013 in Tokyo’s fashion district, the home country of Lexus and its parent, Toyota. Another Intersect is slated to be unveiled in Dubai’s financial district as soon as this month, say industry sources.

"Visitors can see examples of the qualities important to Lexus, such as craftsmanship and attention to detail, wherever they look," said Atsushi Takada, general manager for brand management at Lexus International, when the first venue opened in Japan. The whole venue "reflects the design ethos of the cars."

The no-sales showrooms are part of Lexus’ attempts to reach younger consumers who might not yet be able to afford a $50,000 car. "Intersect is attracting young innovators who might become our customers in the future," according to the company’s website "We want to create a greater sense of inspiration and emotional connection with them. [For them] it’s about the quality of life beyond cars."  

While Lexus executives are stingy with details about the upcoming New York center, its website states that it will be similar to the Tokyo iteration and is being shaped by the same modernistic Japanese designer, Masamichi Katayama, who also designed the Uniqlo store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. 

In Tokyo’s Intersect, the latest Lexus models are presented as art in a gallery setting called The Garage, and subtle automotive references are incorporated into the decor. A curated collage of Lexus components painted white covers one wall, and benches in the café are made from the same leather as the seats in the Lexus LFA supercar. Bookcases are filled with publications about design, art and autos. But no attempt is made to sell the cars themselves.
To establish Intersect as a cultural hub in Tokyo, the carmaker partners with trendy chefs and coffee roasters to run the café and bistro, including Fuglen, the cult Norwegian coffee company and high-profile Tokyo chef Daichi Tajima. A retail space showcases a small selection of Lexus-commissioned items by emerging local artisans. 

Shifting the perception of a premium car brand into non-car product design addresses key auto industry trends, say industry observers. "Consumers are rethinking their love affair with car brands and viewing cars as simply transportation machines," says a new report on industry trends by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Auto buyers also expect more high-end features to be standard and expect a seamless buying experience, largely online. "Faced with these powerful new forces, auto brands have their work cut out for them," said the report. That includes revamping the showroom experience — with an emphasis on experience."

Which brings us back to the hoverboard presentation. From now until Dec. 20, the Tokyo Intersect has a video program about Lexus’ efforts to develop a skateboard that rides on air, called the Slide. Screenings include behind-the-scenes footage of inventors and a TV ad showing Lexus’ new sports sedan alongside the hoverboard.

It’s just another sign that the Lexus brand, in the unfolding age of Tesla and self-driving cars, is looking beyond cars, trying to apply everything it stands for to a wider sphere.  

"Intersect is not a shop, it’s not a restaurant, and it’s not just for car-lovers," designer Katayama said. "It’s a new category of space."

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