NEW YORK (Feb. 2, 2010) — The mea culpa and brand-saving by Toyota Motor Corp. has begun, as the embattled car maker launched a public relations defensive on all fronts—print, TV and social-media networks—in a bid to salvage its image in the wake of the 2.3 million vehicle recall.
After buying full-page print ads in 20 of the nation's largest newspapers on Sunday, the Japanese auto maker yesterday sent Toyota Motor Sales USA's president and chief operating officer, Jim Lentz, to NBC's “Today” show, where he talked to host Matt Lauer about why the company halted sales and production of eight models over an accelerator-pedal-sticking issue.
“This will be under control,” Mr. Lentz said, at the same time denying that Toyota dragged its feet on the issue.
The company's full-page newspaper ad featured a pause button and large text that read: “A temporary pause. To put you first.” Underneath the picture of the pause button, there is smaller text about why Toyota halted production and sales of the vehicles, directing consumers to the company's Web site.
It's a strong, straightforward offensive with Mr. Lentz striking an apologetic but reassuring tone. But will it be enough, considering that Toyota waited almost a week before communicating anything to its fiercely loyal customers and potential consumers? Continued criticism
Alexander Edwards, president of automotive research firm Strategic Vision, San Diego, told Advertising Age that while Toyota is trying to do the right thing, the message is confusing.
“People are seeing this full-page ad, yes, but they're also seeing articles before and after that ad where one group is saying it's a mechanical problem, one group says it's electrical, one group blames Toyota, one group blames the supplier,” Mr. Edwards said.
He added: “The ads and their statements aren't very clear, and that actually causes a loss in that reassurance that Toyota is seeking to give its customers.”
Many Internet bloggers also criticized Sunday's newspaper ad, and were incredulous when Mr. Lentz said on the “Today” show that Toyota only knew about the problem since October 2009.
Besides a damaged reputation, another immediate concern for Toyota—the No. 1 global player—is ceding market share. In the wake of the recall last week, General Motors Co. was the first out of the gate to launch an incentive program to try and lure Toyota lessees and would-be-buyers.
Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group L.L.C. hesitated at first, but came around quickly, so all of the Detroit Three domestic auto makers are now offering similar $1,000 incentives to Toyota customers to buy or lease their vehicles instead.
Brian Dobson, founder of Ridgefield, Conn.-based Dobson Communications, said that while Toyota has come up with a solution for the sticky pedal problems, crisis nonetheless begets crisis. Media coverage, regulatory hearings, turmoil among suppliers and distributors, loss of market share and weakened customer loyalty will all have a cumulative effect.
“Fixing Toyota's damaged reputation among concerned consumers and disappointed dealers will take much longer,” he said.
Norm Hartman, Toyota owner for a decade and chief operating officer of TMT Worldwide, an independent media and crisis communications agency, said the ads he saw in the newspapers were disappointing in that they didn't effectively communicate what people should do or explain what Toyota was doing to remedy the problem. “I have had nothing but the finest service,” he added, “and that's what I expect to come from that company. So when I saw this delay it just didn't reconcile for me.”
Regardless of how hard Toyota throws itself on its sword, Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer at branding agency Method, said there will always be a level of doubt in place that the company's dealerships will have to contend with. “Can you imagine those poor dealerships are now going to have to contend with questions about whether the issue is sorted out in this model or not every time they try to sell a car?” he said.
“It's going to trail them for some time to come.”
Reporters Michael Bush and Rupal Parekh contributed to this report, which appeared in Advertising Age, a New York-based sister publication of Tire Business.