Toyota’s ad campaign is a hostage to fortune

Someone high up at Toyota seems to have taken a leaf out of World War 1 generalissimo Ferdinand Foch’s strategic manual: “My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.”

That is the only plausible explanation for the beleaguered car-maker’s eccentric decision to launch an advertising blitz countering – wait for it – the perception that Toyotas are in any way unreliable or unsafe.

Apparently, it’s the brainchild of Toyota’s US general manager Bob Carter and newly appointed group vice-president marketing Bill Fay. “What were’re dealing with here,” says Bob, by way of explanation in Ad Age, “Is a perception issue, and brand perceptions are not brand realities.”

The reality, Bob, is that Toyota has just had to recall another 1 million vehicles with suspected, er, reliability and safety issues. That brings to 12 million the total number of recalls since November last year – 10 million in the USA – on account of sticking throttles, dodgy mats, brakes that don’t seem to work properly and cruise management systems with a habit of stalling at high speed. OK, not too many proven deaths have resulted (so far). But then, how many do you need for “perception” to become the “reality”?

I can see where the contrarian thinking may have come from. Considering the number of recalls, Toyota market share had held up remarkably well. It’s still the top-selling car marque in the USA and lost “only” 1% share in the year. Until August that is, and the latest recall. Stripping out the exaggerated comparative caused by the “Cash for Clunkers” trade-in incentive last year, sales have still plummeted a disastrous 14%, as potential buyers begin dropping Toyota from their consideration list and looking more closely at Hyundai and Ford instead.

But plugging the perception gap with some advertising is just wishful thinking, I’m afraid. First get those safety and realiability issues sorted out, then run the reassurance campaign and it might have more credibility. Don’t just take that from me, by the way. Look no further than the publicly expressed opinion of Bob Seelert, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide – the very agency that is hatching the campaign. Earlier this year Seelert controversially chose to contradict his client in public about the wisdom of continuing advertising support while the faults remained unfixed. With hindsight, the advice seems wiser by the day.

I don’t dispute the need to reassure Toyota’s baby-boomer customer base. But PR is the way to do it; not an advertising campaign – using the assertive rhetoric of product benefits – that will become hostage to the next vehicle recall. Which, on the statistical evidence so far, can’t be very far away.

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