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Lexus and the Iron Chef: Make 'Em Hungry, and Their Hearts and Minds Will Follow

"Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto is most often seen running his hot restaurants or competing for glory in celebrity TV food cook-offs. But there he was making the sushi at the April 19 New York Auto Show introduction of the Lexus LF-Gh hybrid, a new concept car that could be the "premium grand touring sedan" of the future.

Morimoto, despite his scowling visage, was more the star of the event than the car. Did the Lexus even have a drivetrain? It was unclear at the event, where the hybrid got short shrift, but nobody missed the circulating food.

Lexus is investing heavily in celebrity chefs, signing on such marquee names as Daniel Boulud, Michael Chiarello, Dean Fearing, Christopher Kostow and Michael Symon. Automakers have been sponsoring food events forever, but nouvelle cuisine has largely been a European province. Japanese carmakers have been slow to move into the category.

By picking mostly chefs with TV connections, Lexus maximizes the familiarity level for American auto buyers who may not eat out every night, but who frequently tune in to the top-rated food shows. Lexus wasn't born yesterday, but it's still new enough that it's not the first luxury brand that occurs to consumers -- and so it's counting on the celebrity-chef connection to drive that thought home. And it just might.

An expanding collaboration
The Lexus partnership is starting relatively small, with sponsored chef appearances at a leading food and wine festival later this month. But it's slated to grow considerably with a number of other initiatives, including customer events, charity functions and multimedia productions. Top chefs in Lexus ads seem likely too, though the brand isn't confirming that.

If the celebrity firepower of Lexus-sponsored chefs is any indication, the strategy is likely to work. The campaign won't let Lexus own the category, but it will put the brand on the luxury buyer's radar. Are people really so shallow that they might buy a car just because a star they admire is associated with it? Yes indeed. It has to be the right celebrity, and the right association, but food always evokes an emotional response. Brand loyalty is very fluid these days, and all consumers need is a good reason to switch.

Sponsorships moving upscale
Auto sponsorships in general are moving upscale. Even American brands once content to underwrite NASCAR and Budweiser beer are realizing that their potential customers are watching the likes of Bobby Flay, Paula Deen and Masaharu Morimoto on TV.

The European brands have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Bentley, for instance, is sponsoring a women's wear collection at the Royal College of Art, and Mercedes always buys a booth at the very upscale Greenwich Concours.

Dave Nordstrom, Lexus' vice president of marketing, told me:

Our owners like to buy fine food and wine, and we want to be involved in what's meaningful to our owners. The "rock star" chefs we sponsor perform excellence in the culinary arts, just as we do with cars. If we're associated with brands that people respect and like, it adds great value to our own brand.
That's indisputable, but the approach has to be subtle -- a discreet banner rather than Lexus pitchmen in chef hats. If the branding is too blatant, the public loses respect both for the chefs and for the automaker.

Making dreams come true
As it gathers information about consumer behavior, Lexus is actually taking its campaign directly to certain prospective customers. According to Nordstrom, the brand has sponsored a number of special events that include bringing both Lexus' general manager and a sponsored chef to the home of an individual -- possibly one who already owns a Mercedes or a BMW -- for a night of food, drink and talk about luxury automobiles. "We get to hear from competing owners what they think is valuable," Nordstrom said.

In many ways, the cooks on Top Chef and the Food Channel really are today's rock stars, with as many devoted fans as Taylor Swift. Chef Chiarello, whose specialty is upscale Italian food, told me:

Lexus is very supportive of our industry, and the customer of a dynamite restaurant is also a potential Lexus customer. The company is really good at supporting sponsorships for the long term, so it's not just about selling the next car, it's about building the brand.
Both the chef's brand and that of Lexus, of course. Lexus also sponsors what Nordstrom calls "luxury sports." That mostly means golf, but there's also some basketball and hockey, too. And it's big on the travel and leisure category, too. But it's with food that Lexus really shines.

At the packed hybrid car event, seasoned auto journalists got their pictures taken with the impassive Morimoto and sampled his jewel-like sushi creations (see photo). Across town, Ford had the rock group Train, but there's only one Morimoto.

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Photos: Jim Motavalli