At a time when virtually every major automotive brand has its own music strategy — even Fiat hired Jennifer Lopez for an ill-advised U.S. launch campaign last fall — sometimes niche is more.
For example, Lexus made music a focal point of an event series, Lexus Listening Lounge, geared exclusively toward upscale African-Americans. Making stops in key markets like Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and Miami, the series welcomed Keri Hilson, Angie Stone and Raheem DeVaughn at concert events that doubled as showcases for Lexus vehicles.
Eventually, Lexus and its multicultural branding agency Walton Isaacson decided to put a lyrical twist on the event by also inviting spoken-word and poetry performers to share their work in between sets from hot R&B and soul acts. The combination was successful enough to turn into a TV series called “Verses & Flow” that premiered on TV One in 2011 and returned in late August for a second season. Hosted by actor/poet Omari Hardwick (“Sparkle”), the sophomore season features Macy Gray, Carl Thomas, Elle Varner, Luke James, Musiq and, performing together for the first time in years, Eric Benet and Tamia.
The concept of sponsors creating TV shows around consumer products is hardly new, dating back to the earliest days of the medium (“The Colgate Comedy Hour,” “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show,” “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports”). Still, the trend has regained momentum in recent years — particularly in music, as brands including Smirnoff (BET’s “Masters of the Mix”), Grey Goose (BET’s “Rising Icons”) and even Starburst (the candy sponsored MTV’s revamped “Unplugged” in 2010) joined the fold.
“Verses & Flow” isn’t just an excuse for Lexus to sell cars, executives say. The events, taped in June at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles, allowed guests to interact with the Lexus GS, but the branding of the TV program is quite minimal. To Lexus VP of marketing Brian Smith, there was more value in having a curatorial role around a specific art form that appeals directly to one of its key buying groups.
“There are different ways we could reach this luxury demographic buyer, but ‘Verses & Flow’ is such a positive emotional message,” he says. “Rather than sponsoring some show that might be dramatic but not have the same upbeat arc, this was a really engaging way to reach audiences.”
While TV ratings and the number of potential car buyers acquired through “Verses & Flow” are important to Lexus, the top measures of success to Aaron Walton, co-founder of Walton Isaacson and the show’s executive producer, are buzz and relevance. The first season, for example, generated more than 77 million media impressions — a significant increase over the combined metrics garnered by the Lexus Listening Lounge event program. In the weeks leading up to the second-season premiere, Lexus had a 450%-500% increase in chatter among African-Americans based on buzz from the show’s tapings. “It was amazing to see these brand mentions when the show hadn’t even aired yet,” Walton says.
TV One’s parent company Radio One lends additional outreach by putting poets on the air with local radio hosts to drive tune-in.
“They’re getting an opportunity they normally wouldn’t have,” Walton says of the poets. “One poet was talking about how being on the show last year literally changed his life regarding how he got booked on tours. That’s one of the cool things you see as a result of the show — what Lexus has been doing not just to support its own brand.”
Walton Isaacson handles bookings for the show internally, and spent more than three months scouting poets for season two. “Because of season one, we started getting a lot of submissions organically from people who saw this as a great platform for their poetry. That made things a lot easier than the first time,” Walton says.
The agency is already in talks with TV One and Lexus about ideas for a third season. “We have to take the kaizen philosophy of looking at ways for things to improve when they’re already great,” Walton says. “We had the experience of this being a live event before we ever started taping a show. We had to do it on the fly at first. We didn’t think people would be so engaged that we’d literally have to kick them out of the venue.”