Since the early 1990s (technically 1989) Lexus has worked hard to become a byword for dependable luxury.
If you want to treat yourself to a comfortable, reliable, and opulent vehicle that typically exceeds the standards of European prestige brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, then Lexus is the ticket.
Lexus’ first foray into the luxury vehicle market – the LS 400 (read our full LS400 buyer’s guide and model history here) – was considered to be so well designed and built that Cadillac engineers from the time reckoned that they simply would not have been able to build such a car at any cost … in other words they just couldn’t figure out how it was done to such a high standard.
Through the 1990s, 2000s and onwards, Lexus expanded its model range – typically taking existing Toyota platforms such as the Camry for the ES300 (the best selling Lexus of the 1990s) and then adding additional luxury features, styling etc.
The formula proved successful, and Lexus frequently tops lists of most reliable car brands and also has an excellent reputation for service – both pre and post-sale.
But you probably already knew that.
What is less clear is the meaning of the Lexus name.
What does Lexus mean?
In this edition of Car Facts, we are going to explore the origins and meaning of the brand name.
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Luxury Export To The United States – Myth or Reality?
There’s an urban myth that Lexus stands for “Luxury EXport to the United States” (or something similar to that)
This would actually make sense, as Lexus was created as a luxury brand to export outside of the Japanese domestic market (read our JDM meaning guide here – and learn more about the “domestic” versions of lexus cars)
Although Lexus cars were – and still are – exported to other countries, around 90 in total these days, the primary market for the original LS400 was to be the United States, so this naming myth makes perfect sense.
Others have also argued that the name clearly stems from words like “Luxury” and “Excellence”, e.g. luxus which was Latin for luxury.
However, the advertising agency that developed the Lexus brand name has made it clear that the brand name was never short for Luxury EXport to the United States, or anything similar.
Here’s the real story of how the Lexus brand name came to be:
The True Origin Story Of The Lexus Brand Name
The Lexus story begins in the early 1980s, when in 1983 Eiji Toyoda – the head of Toyota – issued a challenge to his company to build the world’s best car.
Thus, the F1 (Flagship One) project was born – which was to be Toyota’s attempt to build a world-beating luxury vehicle.
Toyota had already made strides in competing with prestige manufacturers with the original Supra and Mark II, but it was believed that in order to establish its place as the world’s top automaker, Toyota needed to beat existing luxury competitors like Mercedes-Benz and BMW at their own game.
Over the next couple of years, Toyota observed both Honda and Nissan launching their own luxury export attempts (with Acura and Infiniti respectively) and after surveying the American luxury vehicle market, determined that a high-end sedan was required.
Toyota also determined that a separate brand name and sales channel was required, as the Toyota brand name at the time was primarily associated in the American market with light pickup trucks.
Owing to some peculiarities in export/import laws, it was easier for Toyota to sell light pickup trucks in the United States (there was no limit to the number that could be sold in the United States), and so the majority of their advertising budget was spent on building brand awareness of this product range – meaning that to many American consumers, Toyota wasn’t ever going to be a byword for luxury … and it’s a hard sell to jump from pickups to luxury cars.
For these reasons, Toyota was adamant a new brand was needed.
By the 1980s, Toyota had a longstanding relationship with leading advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, particularly with respect to American marketing and promotion.
Toyota approached Saatchi & Saatchi, and asked them to set up a dedicated group that would be responsible for promoting Toyota’s new, yet-to-be-named luxury division.
This specific team – originally called Saatchi & Saatchi Group One – became “Team One” (which still exists today as a subsidiary of Saatchi & Saatchi, and which still counts Lexus as a client)
Although Saatchi & Saatchi was based in New York, Team One moved to California, and work began on the brand development.
In Lexus: Pursuit of Perfection by Chester Dawson, there is an interesting story of how in 1988 the Team One members had to politely tell Eiji Toyoda that his “family name just wouldn’t do for the new luxury line.” However, Toyota was receptive to the need for a different brand.
But what to call this luxury offshoot of Toyota?
This was where the tricky work began.
A list of over 200 names was supplied by an expert consultancy, with the list eventually whittled down to five possible names:
According to Dawson, the only name that everybody from Toyota, Lexus (which didn’t then have a name) and Team One agreed on was ‘Alexis’, but there was a concern that it was really a person’s name.
A man called Jim French suggested dropping the A, and then the I was replaced with a U, giving rise to “Lexus”. From there, the Lexus logo was designed.
Long story short, the Lexus name didn’t originally have a specific meaning – at least not according to those responsible for developing it. It was decided by a team of marketing and branding experts, who all liked the sound of it and felt it would work well … and the rest is history.
Recap – What Does Lexus Mean?
Firstly, Lexus doesn’t mean “Luxury EXport to the United States” (at least not according to the advertising agency that worked on the Lexus brand name on Toyota’s behalf).
According to the creators, nor does the name draw inspiration from words like Luxury and Excellence (or any other language equivalents) although these are words which are now synonymous with the Lexus brand and the cars they build.
Instead, the Lexus brand name is a by-product of a “design by committee” process, after Toyota determined back in the mid 1980s that they would need a new brand to launch their export luxury division.
The name itself apparently has no specific meaning, and it is “after the fact” that it has come to be associated with luxury, quality and excellence – giving rise to the catchline ‘The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection’.
Do you believe this story? Or do you think the Lexus brand has some different origin story and meaning?
We would love to hear your thoughts – just leave a comment below to start the discussion.