Carmakers in heritage battle

By Korea Herald

Japanese carmakers make strides in building legacy while Hyundai struggles with outdated data

  • Published : Feb 2, 2014 - 19:47
  • Updated : Feb 2, 2014 - 19:48
The Lexus LFA sportscar is displayed at a brand-themed cafe and restaurant in Aoyama, Tokyo. (Lee Ji-yoon/The Korea Herald)

TOKYO ― A lavishly designed two-story building stands in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, a neighborhood crowded with architectural flagship stores of luxury brands like Prada, Dior and Comme des Garcons.

But the new space, which was set up in August last year, is not dedicated to designer brand clothes or bags. Named “Intersect by Lexus,” it’s a boutique cafe and restaurant themed around the luxury brand owned by Toyota Motor.

“It was a pleasant surprise and is a good fit for Aoyama,” said Sachiko Sai, who was sipping coffee over a red, two-seat sportscar Lexus LFA standing in a corner. “It also is renewing my awareness of the Lexus brand.”

The boutique is a reflection of how manufacturers are battling to refurbish image by emphasizing premium heritage amid the flood of mass-produced cars.

This is why carmakers like BMW and Porsche operate stylish and futuristic brand museums that were built and polished to pay homage to their designs and past.

Ironically, these heritage-building efforts seem to be more necessary for not the upscale European brands, but the younger and yes, cheaper, Japanese and Korean carmakers that are intent on attracting high-end motorists.

The Lexus building in Aoyama was one such effort from Toyota, which has long burnished its brand through museums and theme parks.

Mark Templin, executive vice president of Lexus International, said that, “‘Intersect by Lexus’ aims to offer an inspiring space for interaction among people and cars.”

He added that the company plans to open the same kind of space in other big cities like New York and Dubai.

Japan’s Nissan has also operated a brand gallery in the famous Ginza crossroads in downtown Tokyo, since 1963. Together with a bigger gallery at its global headquarters in Yokohama, the facility has become an iconic symbol of the company, according to Christopher Keeffe, a Nissan spokesperson. 

Customers check out Nissan Teana sedans at the carmaker’s brand gallery in Ginza, Tokyo. 
(Lee Ji-yoon/The Korea Herald)

“We hope their time in the galleries leaves them with a positive and lasting impression that builds a connection with our company,” he said.

The Ginza gallery introduces new or concept cars and invites celebrities to hold special events for customers. Visitors can also access easy and practical tips on eco-driving or learn about the price benefits of hybrid cars.

In 2013, about 270,000 people visited the Ginza showroom, while there were more than 1.08 million visitors to the Yokohama headquarters.

In the meantime, Korea’s Hyundai Motor may have narrowed the gap with its Japanese rivals in terms of technology, such as horsepower and handling, and for some cars, Hyundai may have even surpassed the Hondas and the Lexuses.

But when it comes to building a lasting legacy, the Korean carmaker still lags far behind.

The Korean auto giant officially has no brand museum except a rather shabby PR center that stands at its factories in the southern port city of Ulsan. Without a decent brand museum, critics point out, the premium strategy it has been pursuing on the demands of chairman Chung Mong-koo, can’t gain the necessary momentum.

“Hyundai has been too busy to turn its eyes from production and sales to heritage and image. It was just recently that the management showed interest in the idea of having a brand museum,” said a Hyundai executive, declining to be named.

The carmaker recently purchased a site in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, reportedly in hopes of creating a theme park mimicking those operated by Toyota and Honda in Japan.

But no specific plans have been made, according to industry sources.

Hyundai’s plan to build a new global headquarters in Seoul has also been long stalled as the company failed to secure the right place to relocate over the past decade. After its failed attempt to build a 110-story landmark building in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul, last year, Hyundai is now eyeing an 80,000 square-meter site in southern Seoul.

“Finding the right site is important but a more fundamental issue is we are struggling even to collect old data, including earlier car models,” the Hyundai executive added. “We still have a long way to go.”

By Lee Ji-yoon, Korea Herald correspondent