Did a Culture of Cover-Up Destroy The Toyota Brand?

I’m pretty sure that Toyota has had sufficient time—count it up with me now, a quarter of a century!—to figure out a way to communicate effectively about their cars’ tendency to speed out of control. Yes, it’s true: According to Time Magazine, they first started recalling vehicles for speed problems nearly 25 years ago.


Apparently Toyota thought that silence was golden and sat on the issue until they were forced to talk. A Google search on the terms “Toyota” and “scandal” yielded an item from Slate magazine dated November 2009, but quite honestly I don’t remember hearing anything from them at that time.


The first notice I took of any issue with Toyota was the first week of February 2010, when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak went directly to CNN. I remember eating dinner and watching Wozniak tell CNN that he went directly to the media because he couldn’t get Toyota or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to pay attention to the fact that his use of cruise control caused his Prius to accelerate all by itself.


Today the Huffington Post points out that Toyota is repeating the communication failures of GM’s past by continuing to deny, deny, deny what might really be the source of the problem (the cars’ electronics)—after the story about why the acceleration is faulty has changed three times so far (driver error, badly placed floor mats, sticky gas pedal). As Michael Rose points out in the article:


“(The electronics) is a potentially far more expensive fix complicated by the fact that the operations of Toyota's electronic systems cannot be verified independently because they run on proprietary software….This pattern of denial followed by half measures and reassurances that all is well is eerily familiar. Toyota appears to be following the GM playbook on damage control.”


For a company that ranks in the top 10 (#8) in the World’s Most Valuable Brands List 2009, I say that this behavior is not only despicable, but unforgivable. Really, can this hugely profitable and valuable international brand not get its act together? Surely if they don’t know what to do they can get some help! But no…we are looking at a brand that is lost in communications la-la land. Which says to me that either 1) they just have a great brand by happenstance (e.g. they’re just a good company that ended up being a great brand), or 2) their culture has somehow changed and now they have lost the ability to manage their brand properly.


If you ask me, I would go with explanation #2 as the Wall Street Journal’s reporting implies that the culture did in fact change for the worse when Akio Toyoda took over as company president in 2009:


Company executives familiar with Mr. Toyoda's management style say the 53-year-old chief's close involvement on a wide array of issues stifled subordinates, especially midlevel managers and even some members of his top management team. Many of them have opted to stay quiet or filter information so as not to get in the way of what Mr. Toyoda finds important.”


There is more like this in the article. The point is, Toyota’s core brand promise is quality, and that promise has been deeply violated because President Toyoda doesn’t want to hear about things that are inconvenient. Nor does he seem to want to talk about them. So silence has settled in at the company and between the company and its most loyal fans – the public. Now that life-threatening quality defects have surfaced, and we learn that they have been kept from us, how can we go back to trusting Toyota again?


In my mind, this brand is completely finished. I didn’t even believe that they could do such a thing at first, but when it became clear that they had, I was as upset as if a friend had betrayed me. I can’t even imagine how a car executive could live with the knowledge that they were putting out cars that could send people to their deaths, and then not doing anything to protect them once the defect was known.



I understand that Toyota has a profit motive. And I understand that they probably have lawyers telling them now to shut up, not say anything, because they can only get themselves in more hot water by fessing up more than they already have. But to STILL be so relatively silent, and on top of it running ads on TV for Toyota vehicles as if nothing ever happened – this is completely beyond me.


True, they started out with an apologetic one in February. But just a couple of weeks later we were back to more “nothing ever happened” type ads like this one for the Toyota Sienna.


I don’t know who is behind those ads. I don’t know if there is a cross-cultural communication gap. I don’t know anything from the inside, really. But from a purely branding point of view, I think I know exactly what they need to do right now. Pull all the sunny advertisements off the air, get Mr. Toyoda in front of a camera (again), have him apologize (again and again), have him personally console the families who were wronged (and put that on TV and on YouTube), and commit to fixing the problem properly until it’s resolved.


It’s the right thing to do and in a social media age, it’s probably the only thing.


Because you know what really woke me up to the scope of this scandal? When the co-founder of Apple took his case directly to CNN. He bypassed all the official channels and took the message straight to the people.


The bigger lesson from this whole thing with Toyota is that brands must be responsive to the public and must engage with social media in order to do that. It’s not something that they can choose to do or not do. It’s not a situation where they can have a foufy CEO blog that says nothing and means nothing. And it’s not a situation where they can “stay positive” and never engage with the nasty, negative allegations and rumors that swirl around them.


Branding in a direct way, through the tool of social media, is something that no “great company” is above and is a skill that someone in the organization must absolutely be empowered to practice. Or else they risk having the angry masses stomp them – even the most trusted of them – to death when they are so much as suspected of doing something wrong.


Welcome to brand reality, circa 2010.

Posted via email from Think Brand First