October 18, 2021

Is This Thing On? Ep 5 with Lexus’ VP of Marketing Vinay Shahani

Did you know that engineers make great marketers? Or that our Chief Brand & Experience Officer @Winston Binch hated advertising growing up? On the latest episode of “Is This Thing On?”, Winston and @Lexus VP of Marketing @Vinay Shahani explore how they troubleshoot business problems through creativity, the concept of “omotenashi”, Lexus’ foundational approach to the customer journey, and opportunities brands need to take in the changing media landscape.

In episode five of “Is This Thing On?”, GALE Chief Brand & Experience Officer Winston Binch chats with Lexus VP of Marketing and longtime friend Vinay Shahani about his path from engineer to marketer, growing brands, and what it takes to win in a fast and ever-evolving media environment. Here are a few highlights from the episode:

Lexus calls its customers “guests.” It’s part of the brand’s foundational approach to the customer journey, anticipatory hospitality, which they draw from the Japanese culture of omotenashi, meaning to wholeheartedly look after guests.

The public is more creative than the creative department. Think less about creation and more about curation and collaboration. You should be exploring new types of relationships and collaborating with internet hit makers that are right for your brand and right for your audience, not just doing it on your own.

If you are an aspiring marketer, be a leaf blowing in the wind. Don’t be too precious about going after a specific channel or a specific area of the business. Get experience across the value chain and look at how brands are connecting with consumers, but also at the different disciplines within marketing, whether it's product marketing or advertising or digital or social, as there's so many different avenues that one can take.

We’ve included the full transcript of the conversation below for easy reading, and please make sure to have a listen on Amazon, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, and wherever else you get your podcasts!

Episode 5: Winston Binch & Vinay Shahani

Winston Binch (00:29):

You joined Lexus at the start of the year, I think nine months now, interesting time to make a company transition, but how's it going so far?

Vinay Shahani (00:42):

Hey, Winston, it's going great. I feel really fortunate for... As they say, timing's everything in, I would say, any industry. And certainly coming to Lexus when I did, especially with my experience of looking from the outside in, I remember 32 years ago when the Lexus brand was formed. And if you had told me back then that I would be the head of marketing for the Lexus brand in the US, I would've probably laughed, but no question, it's a really opportune time. We're really focused on repositioning the brand. We've got a few big launches happening this year, but a lot of new products and technologies rolling out over the next couple of years and really a big opportunity to have Lexus appeal to more younger luxury buyers in the future. That's really the big opportunity for us. So it's been a lot of fun to sink my teeth into this bigger opportunity. And honestly, this brand, there's so many great attributes that I think consumers would love to learn about it and it's a great challenge for me to lead the team as we work hard to raise the profile of the brand.

Winston Binch (02:08):

It's an exciting remit. We didn't talk about this before, my dad had Lexus growing up and...

Vinay Shahani (02:16):

Oh, I didn't know that.

Winston Binch (02:17):

Yeah, he did. It's a big shift to make, right? You are strategically transforming the brand going younger, how do you do it? How do you go about that, something of that type of challenge?

Vinay Shahani (02:34):

It's always a challenge. I think the first place you need to start is just making sure that you have a clear sense for what the brand stands for. And when I joined the company or, I should say, when I joined the brand in January, I started by really talking to everybody on the team and asking, "What, in your words, would you use to describe the Lexus brand?" And I was surprised at the variance in the answers that I was getting from people, which led me to feel like we need to be a little bit more focused and make sure that we as a marketing team, as well as our team members across the division, as well as our extended team, which includes our dealership partners and the sales consultants, really need to have a much tighter understanding of our brand values, our product truths, what the brand stands for.

Vinay Shahani (03:36):

So it really started there and just making sure that between my team and our agency partners that we felt like we had that distillation or that essence of the Lexus brand well understood. And that took some time, because I think there was some really good debate that we had about things that we want the brand to stand for. We relooked at our target customer to say, "Okay, over the next few years, who are we trying to convince to take a look at the Lexus brand?"

Vinay Shahani (04:06):

And I think we saw very clearly that that answer was different than what it looked like in the past. So, that was a really, I think, worthwhile exercise. And then once we had a clear sense for who the target customer was, and we had a clear sense for the products and technologies that we were rolling out, then I think we could bring it all together and consense upon this is the direction that we want to go in. And that process took a good six, seven months, but I feel a lot better about it now that we've gotten that under our belt and we all seem to be singing off the same song sheet, but it's been a really great process.

Winston Binch (04:48):

One thing I'm passionate about, as you know, is customer experience and experience design, and experience is really at the core. It's in the DNA, and I've even noticed you call your drivers guests. I live in New York City and I ride my bike by INTERSECT on 14th Street, which is an innovative partnership you've done with Union Square Hospitality Group. Talk to me a little bit about experience and how that figures into this transformation.

Vinay Shahani (05:27):

It's a great question, by the way. When you think back to the genesis of the Lexus brand 32 years ago, I feel like Lexus was a disruption to the auto industry. They took a very different approach to luxury. There's a Japanese word that I think is widely held within the company as foundational to our approach in that customer journey, and it's omotenashi. And if you translate it, it's almost this anticipatory hospitality and treating the guest like you're in the middle of everything that we do as a brand. Whether that's us at the factory level or the OEM level, as well as the way our dealers treat their customers and really trying to remove friction from the process, that's really the heart of our brand. I think this concept of omotenashi really ties us all together and even moves into a brand experience like INTERSECT BY LEXUS. I'm glad you've had a chance to check it out. Hopefully you've had a chance to eat there. If not, then I'm going to have to make sure that we change that in the near future. But [crosstalk 00:06:48]

Winston Binch (06:48):

I need a little help, I think.

Vinay Shahani (06:50):

Hey man, I'm there for you. I'll absolutely make that happen, but I'd love to have you over there. And it's just another expression of omotenashi and another way to experience the brand. The reality is there's so many different ways for consumers or our guests to experience Lexus, whether it's through a place like INTERSECT BY LEXUS, where you learn a little bit more about our culture, you learn a little bit more about the type of hospitality that we espouse, or just going to a Lexus dealership, seeing a national ad on broadcast TV, going to the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, of which we're a sponsor, or going to an IMSA race where we compete in the GTD class against other luxury and sports car manufacturers. All of that is tied together by this notion of omotenashi and this experience that we want to curate for our guests. And it's exciting to be able to have that as a foundational value for the brand.

Winston Binch (07:50):

I love seeing that value push through into your media investment. And my household is there's five girls, aging from the range of 10 to 16, and they're not watching ads but they love experience. We had Governors Ball Music Festival here in New York this weekend and I went, I think I was the oldest person there, but people want to get out and experience things. And then I think also with just what we're seeing around privacy and just what's going on with platforms, owned platforms are just becoming a real priority for brands and it's cool to see you guys lean so heavily into that. Want to switch gears a little bit and talk about something more personal. You started as an engineer, which I love. You are a nerd at the core man, and Michigan, Stanford, then you were in an enterprise tech consultant, you worked at Ford, VW, where we met, Toyota, Nissan. How did you become a storyteller? A marketer?

Vinay Shahani (08:59):

It's just so weird to hear you say that because when I look back at my journey, it certainly wasn't all orchestrated in that effect. Honestly, just started out so simply, which was I was this kid, born and raised in suburban Detroit, Michigan and my dad was in the industry. My dad was an automotive engineer at Ford Motor Company his entire career. And a little bit of background, my dad immigrated to the US in the 1960s from India, and he's very smart guy, very quantitative and he studied at the University of Michigan to get his master's degree. And he went into the car business because the US auto industry was growing at that time.

Vinay Shahani (09:51):

They were hiring engineers from around the world to come in and help them build these great new products. And I was just a bystander watching that happen and I just fell in love with the product. I was a product geek by the age of four. My dad took me to the Detroit auto show and all of that experience of car culture really rubbed off on me. Whereas, by high school, I had no question about where I wanted to go career wise. I knew I wanted to be in the car business. And what was very clear to me was, just based on the strengths that I had in school for math and science and stuff like that, being an engineer was really natural for me. But what I learned about in college was engineering, all it is, is a systematic way to be a problem solver.

Vinay Shahani (10:45):

And the beauty of that was when I was graduating from the University of Michigan, I saw a lot of companies coming in and recruiting engineers that I would never have expected. You had financial institutions coming in, hiring engineers, you had banks coming in and hiring engineers. I ended up going into a consulting company. Even though I had three summer internships at Ford Motor Company, I ended up going to work for Arthur Andersen in their enterprise consulting practice based in Chicago. And it was great. Being an engineer really helped me figure out how to go into a new client in a new industry and ask the right questions and figure out how we can help them by identifying bottlenecks in their processes.

Vinay Shahani (11:31):

And I think ultimately it was a really great foundation, but having that mindset has really helped me throughout my career in moving through the value chain, whether it was consulting and then moving into manufacturing and then moving into sales operations, moving into marketing, I think the common denominator across all of those functions has been just having that engineering mindset, which really helps you figure out what questions to ask and really trying to figure out what's the root cause of the problem that we're having and how do we put countermeasures in place and build on that. So I don't know, that's how I would phrase it, but I'd love to hear your story. What was your journey like?

Winston Binch (12:17):

Mine wasn't as smart as yours. I just stumbled into this business. I was a musician, studied history and performing arts, came to New York City with aspirations of being a working musician. I played in a rock band, an indie rock band, for five years. So, this is the late 90s and I was in New York City, a very expensive place to live, so you need a day job. And a lot of my friends and fellow musicians were web designers and web developers. So being a musician, trying to find a way to support myself beyond the meager pay I was getting in the clubs led me to digital and I got swept up in the digital revolution and started making websites.

Winston Binch (13:13):

I had landed at Sony Music online, where I was actually making Josh Bell and Yo-Yo Ma's website. And what was so exciting back then, in their early days was you got to wear a lot of hats. I got to be part copywriter, part programmer, part business thinker. And I think all of us that were in digital market in the beginning had that luxury. So you weren't just pigeonholed into one discipline and had a wide view of everything, and what I loved about digital was it was a team sport and growing up in athletics and playing in a band, it was very much a similar dynamic, where you're better when you're surrounded by diverse thinkers that are different than you. I'm not an engineer, but when I'm surrounded by an engineer or a designer and you're all looking at a problem differently, you get to some place pretty interesting.

Winston Binch (14:17):

And what happened to me is at this time... My name's Winston, as you know, but I grew up with that famous slogan, Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should, which was Winston cigarettes. So I hated advertising growing up because everywhere I went, that was the joke. Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should. So I always heard that. And I ended up at RGA after Sony, which is just a legendary, iconic digital agency and I was still in denial that I was in advertising. I'm like, "No, we make digital products and e-commerce platforms." But then I slowly started to just realize, wait, this ad thing is not so bad. And from there went to Crispin Porter Bogusky, where I first worked on Volkswagen, which was a career-changing experience just being in a place... I loved what you said about problem solving is I think that's what attracted me and still does to marketing, that is our job is to solve problems through creativity at the core.

Winston Binch (15:28):

And we get there different ways, data, cultural insights, and increasingly through collaborations, but that's a little bit of my journey. And now I was at Deutsch for eight years where you and I worked on Volkswagen for a long time together. I've landed at GALE now. I think I've been here two and a half years. And that was a result of me wanting to actually be a client. I wanted to be on your side and had spent some time at Michaels, the arts and crafts specialty retailer, and met our founder, Brad, who is also an engineer by training and a business strategist. And we got to talk and realized that we had a similar view that the future of marketing is going to be driven by data at the core, bringing together great storytelling with smart business strategy with more of a consulting mindset, which I think, again, comes back to your note about being business problem solvers. So that’s it's in a nutshell.

Vinay Shahani (16:42):

I love that story. And now that I've worked with you and hearing your journey, I've always seen you as part rock star, part problem solvers. That makes total sense. And as I've been learning more about GALE, I understand that part of your special sauce is being that hybrid agency slash consultancy. And the question I had for you was what does that mean for your business as a marketing agency? And how does that give you guys a leg up relative to some of the other companies that you compete with?

Winston Binch (17:19):

Great question. GALE started with data and tech at the core, it started by a former agency person, a client from Bank of Montreal, digital client and a BCG guy. And so the vision was creative consultancy, and this is eight years ago, before Deloitte, Accenture and everyone started to swim that way. And I think the vision was let's create a better model that merges this creative storytelling with management consultancy. What ended up happening is CRM became a core discipline. And really with that, putting audiences first and using data to truly understand their actual behavior. So I think where we are today, we are doing integrated marketing, but really we always lead with the audience. And, again, I love your focus on the guest because it's how we view the world.

Winston Binch (18:24):

And it's interesting, I worked at multiple great agencies where the idea was boss, and that's what drove everything. But now I think the shift in focus is the audience is boss and how do we put them front and center, design, marketing, and experiences that really work for them. And I think that's our bias and our approach. And the other thing is our philosophy as a strategy is the idea. So I would say we're a strategy-led company, which is different than, I think, a creative agency’s way in where they are really saying, again, the idea is leading. We’re saying the strategy is the lead.

Vinay Shahani (19:13):

That’s awesome.

Winston Binch (19:17):

So the thing I wanted to next talk about was, you and I have been doing this a long time now, and what's changed? A lot has, but what are the things that you looked at in your role that are different than, say, even a year ago?

Vinay Shahani (19:39):

You're right, we are old. There's no question about that. But the thing that's changed, I think, is marketing has evolved to a much wider set of levers, in a good way, in some senses, because we now have more opportunities to connect with consumers in ways that we wouldn't have envisioned just years ago. There's, I feel like, new media types that sprout up almost instantaneously, and in many cases it's hard to find an agency partner that's aware and well versed in every single one of these channels. And I think now it's become more of a collective responsibility between the client and the agency partner to say, "We're going to try new things, and we're going to not always succeed in everything that we try. We're going to try some new things and fail."

Vinay Shahani (20:39):

And that's okay, because I think ultimately one of my philosophies that I've espoused with my team is it's okay to try new, innovative ways of connecting with consumers. Some are going to work and some aren't. And I think celebrating some of those failures can be as instructive, if not more instructive, than some of the successes that we have in the marketplace. But just looking at social media now and all the different platforms that have come up, whether it's the more traditional Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, to a large extent, although I feel like they've been pretty good at innovating and coming up with new ways of engaging with consumers. You have TikTok now that's fairly new, and new for us at least as a brand. Certainly, we didn't have a TikTok channel until I came on board and asked the question, "Why aren't we on TikTok?" Because we know there's a lot of young consumers that we think we can start to have some dialogue with and engage them in a way that we've never been able to do so before.

Vinay Shahani (21:43):

But I would say that's probably the biggest thing, is just the sheer number of ways to connect with consumers. And then the other thing is the data that comes from it and just being able to use data strategically to guide our decision making. The obvious things are what's working and what's not, where are we be able to engage with consumers? And it seems like we're able to move the needle in terms of connecting with consumers and obviously increasing their perception of the Lexus brand, but also looking at ways to figure out how can we do more of what's working and less of what's not working. I think that's always been the holy grail of marketing mix and attribution. And I think we're getting better and better at that over time. But those, for me, are probably some of the most significant changes that have happened over the last couple of years in the marketing space. I'd be curious to hear your perspective on that as well.

Winston Binch (22:54):

You and I are aligned. We've seen Facebook and Instagram become just the most powerful ad platform ever. It's crazy to think how far it's come, but I'm super fascinated and excited by TikTok. We work on the got milk? campaign, which has a teen focus and we’ve been working with them for a year and a lot of our work is in TikTok and that platform's changing by the day. For a TikTok Top View ad, the average watch time is only 9.75 seconds. And really, we work closely with them. You really have to tell your story in one to three seconds, which is that's paradigm shifting. And we've talked about thumb stopping for a long time, but I actually love the challenge of that for us as storytellers.

Winston Binch (23:49):

And then also I think I'm thinking about this, I think there's a shift that has to happen where we have to think less about creation and more about curation and collaboration. And I know you have some cool partnerships you're doing, but back in the day, agencies are still very creative, but it's arguable, easily, that the public is now more creative than the creative department. And you really should be collaborating with internet hit makers that are right for your brand and right for your audience, not just doing it on your own. So I love now exploring these new type of relationships, these new paradigms and how we create, how we tell stories and I think TikTok is the platform du jour but it does represent an interesting new approach. And it's a powerful platform. Again, having young kids, I know you do as well... Any adult, get on there and see if you don't get stuck on it, it is highly addictive.

Vinay Shahani (25:01):

You're totally right on that. And I love that statement that the public is more creative than the creative department. That was the brief earlier this year. It reminded me of a project that we worked on, actually with Twitch, which you and I worked on Twitch back in 2015 while we were at VW, and here we are six years later. And we had a challenge where we're launching this new sports sedan, the all new IS from Lexus. And this marketplace in and of itself is very much biased towards trucks and SUVs. That's what the majority of people want. And so we wanted to engage with some younger consumers and we worked with Twitch to basically crowdsource or the gamers IS. So we worked with an influencer who has a following, a woman named fuslie.

Vinay Shahani (25:55):

And she helped us engage what ended up being almost a million people in curating what this car looked like in terms of what gaming platform we integrated into it, what screen we were going to integrate into it, the wrap on the vehicle, all the way down to the beverage of choice that goes inside the refrigerator inside the car. And we built this one off vehicle that's now on the auto show display circuit, and it's just a sign of the times. You imagine that something like that wouldn't have been possible without a platform like Twitch, but the end result was giving us some confidence to go and try even more bold new things, which I think ultimately that's what our marketing department and our collective agency partners need is experience like that, that can help fuel more creativity, because that creates really a positive virtuous cycle.

Winston Binch (26:53):

One of the things you're making me, inspire me with this thought is we've talked about art and science in our business and for a long time art has really led. And I think now, to be successful, you really have to have an explore mindset, an engineering mindset, like we talked about, but as a marketer, how do you make a decision about where to place bets? Again, I know you have a youth audience... Trying to target that Gen Y but how are you thinking about that these days?

Vinay Shahani (27:26):

I think the automotive ecosystem is so rich and complex in and of itself because as you know, we have national advertising that we control and we do at what we call the tier one level. We have our dealer partners that have their own associations that are around the country, where they will collaborate together and identify their unique market opportunities and market needs. And then we'll participate with them on those types of initiatives. And then you have the dealer, our dealer partners at Lexus, frankly the best in the business that I've ever worked with and they have their own local presence where they're the face of the brand to the consumer in the local market and somehow all of this has to work together across channels, across different mediums. And I think that's the orchestration where the manufacturer can really add a lot of value in using data to inform a lot of those channels and working together, because ultimately the things that we can do at a national level are very different than the things that the dealer can do at the local market level.

Vinay Shahani (28:37):

Our dealers tend to be pillars of their community and have a lot of influence in the local markets that they serve versus what we do at scale, whether it's a data informed broadcast buy or something that's very specific on cable or something that's very, very targeted on digital. And then ultimately making sure that we recognize that ultimately the brand is the collection of all of those different channels and all of those different interactions and engagements we have with consumer is super important. And frankly that's where I think a lot of the fun comes in, is just realizing that it's such a broad and complex ecosystem, but curating that one-to-one experience and that journey for the consumer is so important and to do so in a way that's consistent and upholds the tenants of the brand, I think are the big challenges for us.

Winston Binch (29:38):

I would say, just listening to you, orchestration and curation feel like really important things right now for all marketers. It doesn't matter if you're in the consultancy agency or brand side. So we only have a couple minutes left here. Is there any marketing out there that's really inspiring you right now? And it doesn't have to be marketing. It could be a show, anything in culture that you've looked at and are impressed by?

Vinay Shahani (30:07):

That's a great question. I think that just always constantly looking and seeing what other brands are doing to connect with consumers. To this day I find that guy GEICO is so smart. You watch an ad, you're engaged and then you realize it's a GEICO ad and you're like, "I should have known after all this time." I'm really impressed with some of the work that they're doing, but that's one example that comes to mind. Looking at it from a platform perspective, I think we talked about TikTok, which I definitely agree with and who'd have thought that having six to eight seconds to make your point would be as impactful as it can be. That's a big surprise.

Vinay Shahani (30:53):

And we tried our first time on TikTok was earlier this year with a distracted driving campaign where people usually think when they look down at their phone, when they're in the vehicle, it's going to be just a second, but in reality, on average it's 4.6 seconds. And so we simulated what it's like to not be able to see through your windows for 4.6 seconds and filmed the reaction to consumers. And they were just shocked at how scary it was. And we put that out there on TikTok, and it was amazing to see the engagement that we saw. And I think of the realization that that is a really dangerous practice and people shouldn't do that, was a very interesting learning opportunity for us. So I know I've taken a roundabout way of answering your question, but just looking at it from a platform perspective, I think there's a lot of possibility that's untapped on platforms like TikTok.

Winston Binch (31:50):

That's a super smart and fun use too of the platform. And I agree on GEICO. The other thing with GEICO is they're just ridiculously simple and we always overcomplicate our communications and it just goes to show that's simple and really funny work.

Vinay Shahani (32:08):

Totally. The other one that comes to mind with the word simplicity is Peloton. They are a force of nature in the marketplace right now. And you think about the simplicity of their brand promise, which is they make you want to show up. I don't know anybody in the world that likes to exercise, but enter Peloton and what they did to revolutionize what was a commodity product, which was a exercise bike, combining the internet of things and combining these larger than life personalities, these influencers in and of themselves on Instagram and all these Peloton instructors, and then most importantly, inspiring this notion of the personal best and the personal record has just created this powerful storm in the marketplace that I think every marketer of whatever product or service can't not pay attention to has been pretty impressive.

Winston Binch (33:06):

Killer product, great experience. Apply some game mechanics. I agree, a really impressive brand. So you spent a lot of time at the racetrack. What's the fastest you've ever driven a car?

Vinay Shahani (33:23):

Well, I'm not as daring as some of our race car drivers, but I may or may not have been in a Lexus RC F Track Edition with Scott Pruett at the wheel and the Daytona Speedway, I think we hit about 162 miles per hour in a production car. So certainly I wasn't driving, so I didn't really answer your question. I think the fastest I've ever driven on a track is probably 150 miles per hour, but I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I love that Lexus is in motor sports. And the reason for that is maybe counterintuitive for some people, many people just tend to assume that a reason why a car brand is in motor sports is to show off your technical ability and how the technical ability of the car would translate to any sort of vehicle that we sell through our showroom.

Vinay Shahani (34:12):

And that's maybe a really small piece of it, because as we compete in the IMSA series and GTD class, we raise the RCF, which is a vehicle that you can buy in a Lexus showroom. But the reality why we're in racing is it's another engagement channel, just like social media, just like broadcast television, just like the things that we're doing with some of our luxury hotel partners around the country. It's a way engage people to tell the story of the Lexus brand and why consumers should care about the Lexus brand. And that's where we've gotten pretty innovative with the things that we're doing. Obviously we want to win, we want our partner, Vasser Sullivan, they're a motor sports partner that we work with, we want them to win as a team, but when we win is when we're convincing other people able to look at Lexus in a way, and really sprinkle that excitement that comes from motor sports and show how that reflects on the brand. That's the real opportunity and that's why I love motor sports.

Winston Binch (35:15):

And I think the note there is sponsorship and partnership, maybe that they've been around for a very long time, but I think they're more important today than they've ever been, particularly in a distracted attention economy. We talked about experience and engagement, and I love what you're doing with the race program. So just one last question for you, Vinay. Thanks for joining us. What advice do you have for people getting into marketing today, maybe particularly auto space?

Vinay Shahani (35:50):

My advice would be as you're coming in new, don't be too precious about specifically going after a specific channel or a specific area of the business. I think when you're early in your career, it's, I think, behooves you to be a leaf blowing in the wind to a certain extent and get experience across the value chain and really look at how brands are connecting with consumers, looking at the different ways that we can do that as brands, but also looking at the different disciplines within marketing, whether it's product marketing or advertising or digital or social, there's so many different avenues that one can take his or her career different directions.

Vinay Shahani (36:43):

And I think having cross-functional experience in this day and age, to your point about the way your journey starting out playing in a rock brand and stumbling on digital and learning about the power of what that can an offer, I think there's a lot of benefit to having that learning philosophy and that learner's mindset that can help guide one's career. And I think that's super important to be able to go and try different things, especially when you're early in your tenure, early in your career.