When John French came up with the idea of dropping the a and changing the i to u, thus creating the new Lexus name, the general counsel for Toyota, Bill Plourde, was in the room. The Lexis name came up in the discussion, but since Lexus was a new word, spelled differently, and not a computer service, it was not considered an issue.
The Toyota legal department had vetted the Lexus name globally and found no issues. This threat of a lawsuit from Lexis was embarrassing for Plourde and the legal department at Toyota Motor Sales, USA. It was also a costly setback for Yuki Togo who had personally fought so hard for the second channel and the name.
Lexis was a legal research service and Nexis the business research service of Meade Data Central, Inc. located in Dayton, Ohio. Lexis was the first legal research service to go online, and their business boomed in the early ‘80s. Mr. Simpson started as the president and CEO of Lexis in 1982 after 19 years at IBM. However, business was not good at Lexis because of increased competition. The competitors were charging fees based on time use, but Lexis refused to change and was charging a fixed fee. The Lexis market share was falling rapidly. The Toyota legal team arranged for me to meet privately with Mr. Simpson.
Bill Plourde, who had been Toyota’s general counsel for over 10 years, was a graduate of the UC Davis Law School and was highly regarded by everyone at Toyota. Outwardly, Bill gave the appearance of calm resolve, but inwardly the Lexis lawsuit was eating away at him. He took it personally and knew we had to keep the Lexus name.
Bill coached me on how to handle myself with Mr. Simpson. It was to be only the two of us with no attorneys. I was told to be professional, not combative, and explain that it was not our intention to harm the Lexis brand. I was to explain how the name came about and that it was a new, made-up word, and we would be careful that our marketing would not harm Lexis in anyway. Our hope was to resolve the issue without going to court and that I would come back in two weeks so that we might explore options to both our satisfaction.
I went to Dayton to meet with Mr. Simpson in November of 1987. I was ushered into a conference room that had a long table that could seat about 20 people. Apparently we were not going to meet in his office. I was seated on one side of the table. Mr. Simpson walked into the room. Small in stature with dark black hair that was carefully parted and groomed, he carried himself with a casual indifference and did not look at me. He was not alone. With him was one of his senior managers and an attorney. We exchanged introductory pleasantries from across the table as the three of them sat down directly across from me.
I carefully explained that the Lexus named was a made-up, new name and apologized for any concerns it may have caused their management. I went on to assure them we would not be marketing our car in any way that would confuse consumers or negatively affect their computer legal services.
Jack Simpson sat across from me with an icy and expressionless look, saying nothing. His attorney forcefully expressed his opinion that the Lexus name was a clear trademark infringement on the part of Toyota. LexisNexis wanted Toyota to discontinue using the name immediately. I fought a rising nausea as I began to realize this meeting was not going as I had hoped. The meeting lasted only 15 minutes.
I asked for an opportunity to talk with my senior management in California and return in December to discuss possible options to resolve our differences. They made it clear that, while I could come back, there was nothing to discuss.
The Toyota legal team was both dismayed and disbelieving of the LexisNexis approach to resolve the issue. My second meeting with Jack Simpson was even shorter than the first. It was in the same conference room at the same table, only this time Jack Simpson was surrounded by eight other managers and attorneys. Lexis offered no options to resolve our differences except that Toyota agree immediately to discontinue using the Lexus name. Jack Simpson sat directly across from me. He was distant and gave the impression he was not interested in anything I had to say. To me, it felt creepy and hostile. I listened, said little, and decided to get out of there as quickly as possible. I asked if it would be possible for my boss, Jim Perkins, and I to meet with them in early 1988. They reluctantly agreed.
Jack Simpson was in no hurry because he had time on his side. We would need to resolve the name issue by March of 1989 in only 15 months. Brochures, advertising, signage, and countless other details all needed to be finalized at least six months before the launch date of September 1989. How do you present a new Japanese luxury car to the consumer when it has no name? What happens in 15 months if the Lexus name dispute is not resolved? Will we be forced to change the name six months before introduction? Should we bow to the pressure from Jack Simpson now and change the name, rather than risk losing?
Bill Plourde was adamant that the LexisNexis case was very weak and that Toyota should win, but he stopped short of committing to Yuki Togo that we would win. Yuki Togo would lose face with management in Japan if we gave up the name—but he had never backed away from a fight before, and he wasn’t about to now. We had no choice. The fight was on.
Neither Yuki nor Bill—nor anyone else at Toyota—had met Jack Simpson. I had. When I received that first letter from Jack Simpson, I was concerned; after my first meeting with him, I was alarmed; and after my second meeting with Jack Simpson, I was scared. I sensed a stubborn cruelty about the man. I would be proved right.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want… Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Psalm 23:1,5 (KJV)
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It was full steam ahead. None of the Toyota vehicles had brand logos on their cars. Mercedes-Benz had the star, Chevrolet had the bowtie, and Ford the blue oval. Lexus needed a logo, but it would take help from an unexpected friend to get it done.
(To be continued in “The Lexus Logo”)