In the autumn of 1987, Dad bought a navy-blue Toyota Camry wagon. It was not a popular decision.
Mom decried how the fabric seats interacted with her leisurewear to form a cloud of static electricity. The soon-to-drive daughter likened the car's handling to that of a supermarket cart. The even-sooner-to-drive goober son (that'd be me) lamented the absence of Blaupunkt subwoofers, turbo boosters and sporty racing stripes. It was dubbed, with something less than affection, "Blue Lightning."
Twenty-one years later, when the raggedy, rotting Camry was sold for $600 -- it had never been given the basic courtesy of garage shelter -- we mourned its loss as we would a family member's. The Camry had moved three kids in and out of college. It had survived the driving debut of my little sister, who treats automobiles the way chronic allergy sufferers treat tissues. It may not have brought a newborn child home from the hospital, but it brought a newly purchased 50-inch TV set home from Circuit City. That's kind of the same thing.
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We don't appear to be alone. In fact, if you don't know a Toyota owner who is defending the company and its mop-up efforts during this dark hour of the brand, you may well be in the minority.
So the question becomes: Why? What is it about Toyota's product line -- and by extension, its perceived superiority in branding, engineering and quality-control -- that has prompted loyalists to respond to the current crisis as if personally attacked?
The answer, as dumb as it sounds, may be just this: The darn things work. This I gleaned from a massively biased survey of Toyotaphiles (and of my brother-in-law Chris and Uncle Mal, Toyota devotees both) engaged in brand cheerleading all over the web.
Yes, defenders fanned out over Facebook and Twitter have other reasons for their passionate pro-Toyota screeds. Jody Pugh, who worked in Toyota's college-student summer program in the late-1980s and whose father was a Toyota lifer, points to the role the company has played in many communities. "Toyota has continued to build plants in the U.S. and plays a MAJOR ROLE in the economies of several states," he writes. Lisa Cook, on the other hand, revisits her collision with an angus bull on a dark, snowy night back in the mid-'90s: "My truck saved me. This was when I first realized what Toyota quality was, because the auto-body shop explained to me how the truck was designed to absorb the impact and save the occupants."
The one thing that all of these unabashed enthusiasts have in common is a lengthy history of successful Toyota ownership, over the course of as many as eight automobiles. U.K. owner Pat Gorman appends his pro-Toyota screed with a photo of his 260,000-mile, 21-year-old "beauty," which he describes as "indestructible ... [it] gets anywhere, looks ugly everywhere and just doesn't stop." He's so swayed by the reliability of his Toyota Hilux that he happily overlooks the accumulated wear and tear. "The heater doesn't work, the CD player only works if you turn it on in the first 10 seconds of the trip, and things get fun if you go over 65 miles per hour," he said. "But, all in all, it is irreplaceable."
For this reason, forgiveness may come more easily to Toyota than it would to a company with a lesser track record. If anything, that's the brand-management lesson to be learned from the Toyota pedal-to-the-metal kerfuffle: that a reservoir of goodwill goes a long way, even in the face of a safety calamity that would've scarred other brands.
"I've been going to [a famous New York steakhouse] for the last 15 years and each time I go, I know I'm getting a great steak and a memorable dining experience," said Craig Sender, a Boston-based PR exec. "Recently, I got sick after eating there. Am I going to stop going there? Of course not, because the product and experience is too good."
I agree. Blue Lightning is dead. Long live Blue Lightning.