I woke up to the news on NPR that Toyota is recalling yet another million-plus vehicles in addition to the 4 million it has already recalled. The last line of the story suggested that Toyota brand is at risk because it is know for “safety.” Looking at CNN and a few other websites, I saw the same language about safety repeated. My branding instincts mde me question this claim. Of course, we want to think that all automobiles are safe. When I think of safety and automomobiles, I think of Volvo. I do not drive a Volvo and I do not have any interest in driving one. But after years of seeing their commercials, reading news articles and brand cases studies, I know that they “own” safety in the automobile category. I decided to look at how Toyota has integrated safety into it’s brand since this is a key message coming through in media coverage.
A long history of branding
Toyota has long been aware of the power of branding. In fact, in 1936 they hosted a contest in which people could submit ideas for the company logo. (It’s still in use today on the corporate headquaters building). On the Toyota website, the company is very clear about its brand values– hard work, good neighbors, globalism and diversity. To me, the brand also represents luxury and lifestyle (Lexus) and their committment to the environment (Prius). Although I know that they also manufacture a lot of gas guzzling trucks, minivans and SUVs, too.
Over the years, they have positioned their brand around the pleasure of owning a Toyota product and less about feeling safe in one. Just look at past ad campaigns of the past. “Oh what a feeling,” “I love what you do for me,” “Get the feeling” and “Moving Forward” are a handful of past campaign slogans.
Here’s one other thing I noted about the Toyota brand: it wanted to be known for “stopping to fix problems” before they got worse. Aha. If that’s the case, they should have lived up to this brand value back in 2007 when they got the first reports of gas pedal/floor mat problems in their Tundra truck. In that case sticking to their brand could have meant a full inspection of their vehicles, offering consumers early information about what to look for and having them come back in for safety inspections. Sure, it would have been expensive. But they would have maintained the trust of their customers and perhaps they’d be able to ride out the recent financial crisis becuse brand loyalty means repeat customers.
Instead they have a huge mess on their hands today. Consumers who once enjoyed the experience of owning a Toyota are feeling quite the opposite. And now other auto manufacturers are seeing this as an opportunity to migrate Toyota customers to become new customers and potentially loyal brand followers by offering discounts on their own models. Brands are very powerful and a significant investment for an organization. Not living up to a brand is essentially disinvesting in a company and as we see with Toyota it can devastating to a company’s bottom line.