NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- While the U.S. auto industry is verging on collapse, Toyota can boast a record-breaking 2008 in one market, where it sold 25% more cars than ever before. That's not going to make for an instant turnaround for the Japanese automaker, given that the market was Quebec, where the population is only 7 million, but wait until you hear how the brand did it: with an ad campaign that told consumers in Quebec to keep buying cars, but drive them less.
The gutsy marketing strategy came from Montreal-based BleuBlancRouge, which has been agency of record for the Quebec Toyota Dealers Association for nearly all of the agency's 20-year existence.
It's not that Canada or the Toyota brand have been immune to the challenges faced by the rest of the auto industry. There were two big problems faced at the start of last year: a weak U.S. dollar that caused Canadian consumers to cross the border to buy cars or wait for prices at home to drop; and the rising cost of gas that forced consumers to put new-car purchases on hold or opt for only small vehicles.
But while rivals pummeled consumers with value ads, Toyota and BBR opted for a campaign telling drivers they can be environmentally conscious and fiscally responsible at the same time.
Why not rely on tried-and-true recession-friendly tactics? Because Toyota already knew that it was competitive in terms of price. What it also knew was it had a green car in every category from the subcompact to hybrid segment. So rather than run ads with fireworks and promises of $5,000 rebates, Longueuil Toyota General Manager Marc Daigle, along with his companion dealers, agreed the better strategy would be to talk to the customers differently. "We understand that pricing is the crucial issue, but we are competitive. So once you're competitive, then what do you do?"
"The perception has been that going green is expensive, but we sought to break that stigma [and show] that you can be both at the same time," said Nicolas VanErum, VP-client services at BBR. "Strategically, we were first and most credible in going green, but it was important to not sit on that messaging if you're going to be a leader in that movement."
The agency brought its client a five-step plan, including messaging at gas pumps and a 60-second TV spot dubbed "Rather Clever" that invited consumers to buy cars but drive them less. The commercial saw immediate results, corresponding to a 53% uptick in sales.
"When BBR showed it to the dealers, they applauded; they didn't see it as daring, they saw it as their identity," Mr. Daigle said. "When I look at the branding I see in the U.S. right now, if you take out the Chevrolet or the other brand badges, it would be hard to figure out who is actually offering the rebates. This is such a different format that we are actually simplifying for customers what we have to offer."
Mr. VanErum sees no reason why the strategy used by his agency, which has 100 employees and $13 million in revenue, couldn't successfully be adapted in the States. "Some markets are more ripe for it than others, but I think there is a long-term trend that points in the same direction: needing a car but not necessarily needing it all the time."
"In certain parts of the country it would work and would be refreshing," said Mr. Daigle. "California is trying to be a leader on emissions control. That market is already looking at being greener, so this kind of campaign would be perfect in that market, and maybe some others, too. I think it's unavoidable that these types of themes will come into the marketplace more."
BleuBlancRouge's five-step plan for Toyota
1. GO GREEN
While the competition focused on messaging about lower prices, Toyota launched green pricing messages between January and March 2008 with the goal of differentiating the company in Quebec and setting up the rest of the campaign.
2. FOCUS ON ECO-SAVINGS
Toyota introduced the concept of "Ecolonomics"-the combo of ecology and economy in the campaign. It turns traditional red-tag sales events into green-tag events to show consumers that there's no need to compromise on savings or the environment. The impact was immediate, with sales shooting up 20% between March and May.
3. PAINT GAS PRICES AS AN OPPORTUNITY
Leverage rising gas prices by informing consumers they can save at the pump and save on emissions. By midsummer, Toyota was selling '09 models while rivals were trying to liquidate the previous year's models.
4. PITCH THE CAR AS SOMETHING YOU CAN USE LESS
Using the insight that it's not just about the car you drive, but how much you drive it, Toyota released its 60-second "Rather Clever" spot which invited consumers to buy cars they'll use less. The brand saw a 53% increase in sales.
5. CONFIRM THE TALLY
By mid-October, Toyota met its yearly sales target, and was No. 1 in the Quebec market for the first time in history, beating out GM for the top spot. While competitors were still trying to meet their 2008 numbers, Toyota started prepping for '09.