Not everyone is a car person, but sooner or later most everyone has to buy a car, notably those in the young, wealthy demographic, says Brian Bolain, Lexus national advertising and marketing manager-Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

With that in mind, Lexus is deviating from the norm when it comes to marketing its newest model, the CT 200h hybrid-electric hatchback, its first premium compact car.

The luxury brand got an early start to raise awareness of the all-new CT, launching marketing activities last spring even though the car doesn’t go on sale until March 1.

Lexus also is remaking the buying experience, giving potential customers more control in the CT’s purchase process.

“Considering the small volume of CTs, we’re putting a huge amount of weight behind the launch, almost at an RX (cross/utility vehicle) level, and you know how important RX is to us,” Bolain says at a recent Florida CT 200h media event. “That tells you how important we think the CT is to our future,”

The RX has accounted for more than a third of Lexus sales this year, Ward’s data shows.

Lexus is trying to woo a whole new customer to the brand with the CT 200h, one who is young, wealthy and hip; doesn’t know much about Lexus but likes luxury goods; and who is interested in sustainability, David Nordstrom, vice president-Lexus marketing tells Ward’s in a phone interview.

With that challenge ahead, Lexus chose to begin marketing the CT almost a year before its launch. Pre-launch marketing included tongue-in-cheek climate-change debates, a Web chat that took place inside a CT 200h, plus an online virtual test drive.

The live debates have taken place in major U.S. cities where participants discuss green issues but in a non-academic way. Featured guests have been hipster comedians Sarah Silverman and Andy Samberg. “It was a fun way to have a discussion about a serious issue,” Nordstrom says.

About 300 people attended each of the debates, which together with the online activities have given Lexus its highest “measurable interest in a car,” so early before a model launch, Bolain says.

Lexus later will engage in more traditional marketing activities for the car, including social media. The CT 200h gets four TV spots, double the usual number for a Lexus model launch, including one targeting African-Americans and another aimed at Hispanic car-buyers.

Another aspect of launching the CT is improving the buying process. “It’s a chance for us to show a whole new group of people what the Lexus customer experience is like,” Bolain says.

Because time is money, especially to the young professionals expected to shop the CT, Lexus is revamping its online vehicle configurator solely for its latest premium hybrid.

This revamping allows customers to opt for Lexus Luxury Care pre-paid maintenance at the same time they select their preferred exterior and interior colors, options, and accessories.

As dealers typically control whether they offer pre-paid maintenance to consumers, Bolain sees its inclusion via the configurator as a way to boost Lexus Luxury Care’s adoption as well as dealers’ profits.

CT buyers can select from a couple different set-price scenarios regarding length of coverage and services. Any pre-paid maintenance plan not on the menu has to be negotiated with a dealer.

Another new-to-Lexus scheme is the ability to schedule CT 200h test drives on dealer websites. Each dealer will decide how many staffers to devote to the process and what days and times to offer the test drives.

“Theoretically in December (you could) schedule a test drive for March (with) no calling required; no visits with the dealer,” Bolain says.

Lexus also for the first time will post lease and finance forms online, to be filled out at the customer’s convenience.

That functionality, as well as adding a pre-paid maintenance option to the vehicle configurator, may filter down to other Lexus models in the future, depending on the CT 200h’s customer response, Bolain says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com