Touched by Toyota: Automaker Gets All Emotional in Latest Push

Company Focuses on Social Responsibility in Wake of Blows on Image

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DETROIT ( -- Toyota breaks the biggest, broadest corporate campaign in its history today in a bid to build a stronger emotional connection with Americans.
In its largest corporate push, Toyota is trying to tug at the heartstings of consumers by stressing pillars such as eco-friendliness.
In its largest corporate push, Toyota is trying to tug at the heartstings of consumers by stressing pillars such as eco-friendliness.

Toyota Motor North America hopes the national TV, print and online blitz, focused on three corporate pillars -- environmental commitment, economic impact and social responsibility -- will touch U.S. consumers and give them a better sense of the corporation's vision, said Steve Sturm, who was promoted in January to group VP-strategic research, planning and corporate communications.

The effort, created by Dentsu America, New York, follows a series of negative blows to Toyota's seemingly Teflon image. In the past month, environmental groups have urged members to contact the automaker about reversing its stance on fighting a congressional move to increase fuel-economy standards, and Consumer Reports removed Toyota from its once-automatic spot on the magazine's annual list of "recommended" vehicles. Mr. Sturm said there's no link between the ads and those events.

Gauging opinions
Toyota and Dentsu spent more than six months doing attitudinal consumer research and pretesting an undisclosed number of campaigns, Mr. Sturm said, and consumers overwhelmingly picked one themed "Why not?"

The TV spots are the most poignant part of the push. Robert Richardson (cinematography Oscar winner for "The Aviator") and Erich Joiner co-directed the spots, which show several people making a Toyota car in a beautiful outdoor setting using natural materials nearby. In one, the narrator asks: "Can a car company grow in harmony with the environment? Why not?"

While Toyota would not discuss spending on the campaign, it is expected to well exceed the $40 million TNS Media Intelligence cites as the amount the automaker spent on measured media for its corporate ads last year.

The media flight runs through March. Toyota, via Zenith Media USA, New York, bought all the ad time on "NBC Nightly News" Nov. 5, as well as other NBC properties such as "Meet the Press" and MSNBC, as the news programs this week will focus on green issues, Mr. Sturm said. The automaker is also the sponsor of "Nature" on PBS and will advertise in 20-plus magazines. Dentsu set up a microsite that will reveal other ways Toyota fulfills the campaign pillars and offer a look at how the commercial was made.

Changing tack
The work strays from Toyota's corporate-ad efforts during the past two years, which focused on its economic impact and jobs for Americans, something that already resonated with the focus groups.

Charlie Hughes, founder of consultant BrandRules and a former longtime auto-company executive, compared Toyota to a political candidate: Both "seem to have a nose for what people want to hear." Toyota deserves kudos for that, he added.

Peter DeLorenzo, founder of industry blog Auto Extremist and author of "The United States of Toyota," said the automaker is still very concerned about its image here, even after 50 years. "Toyota is really obsessed with becoming a part of the fabric of America."

He said Toyota has a history of taking pre-emptive actions to deflect downbeat news coming its way and said he believes Toyota is feeling some heat from "GM's emerging green movement" with the hype over its coming Chevrolet Volt. Toyota, he said, "doesn't want to lose its green mantle."

Toyota holds 60% of the U.S. hybrid market and has sold about 600,000 of its six models here since Prius went on sale in spring 2000, Mr. Sturm said.

Prius, Toyota's oldest and best-selling hybrid nameplate, increased U.S. sales this year nearly 67% to 150,272 vehicles through October compared with the same period a year ago, Toyota said last week. The automaker reported its best U.S. October sales: 197,592 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles, 0.5 % better than last October.
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