Lightspeed Survey: Toyota's Loss of Consumer Trust Is Domestic Rivals' Gain

Exclusive Research Shows 26% of Consumers View Brand as Lower Quality Than U.S. Autos Following Recall

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler ought to send Toyota a thank-you card. Not only has the brand's quality reputation plunged since its recall -- 66.4% of consumers now consider it reliable vs. a near-universal 92.4% before -- but the recall is boosting the quality reputation of its domestic rivals in the eyes of consumers.

Lightspeed survey
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BEFORE AND AFTER: Lightspeed's results
That's according to a new Lightspeed Research survey conducted exclusively for Advertising Age, in which 58.9% of total respondents considered Toyota to be of a higher quality than domestic brands prior to the recall, but only 23.3% now think this is the case. Post-recall, 26% of respondents judged Toyota to be of lower quality than the domestic brands, as compared to only 6.9% before the recall. "Toyota has been overrated for years. Domestic automakers make the same or better quality cars these days," said one respondent.

"I don't believe I can ever trust a Toyota car again," said another. "They have to show a lot to change my mind in the future."

Even though the Toyota brand has shown amazing resilience among loyalists -- 72% of owners currently consider it reliable vs. 60.7% of non-owners -- the proportion of owners considering it reliable has decreased dramatically, down some 23 percentage points, compared to opinions held before the recall. "They need to fix the problem," wrote another respondent. "I will not shop for another Toyota until I know the problem has been solved and all cars are safe."

Five hundred Americans were surveyed online by Lightspeed, a Basking Ridge, N.J., online-research provider that is part of WPP's Kantar research-and-information division. The company said its sampling error was plus or minus 4.4% and that it weighted its demographics to represent the U.S. population.

The results suggest just how quickly a consumer's perception of and tendency to like a particular brand can deteriorate when a marketer does not react quickly and definitively to a mounting crisis. Various press reports have suggested that Toyota had become aware over the course of several months that consumers were having trouble with various lines of its cars that accelerated unexpectedly. In some cases, the car maker blamed the placement of floor mats. Only in recent weeks has the company acknowledged the true severity of the problem, recalling approximately 6 million vehicles. Additionally, the U.S. government has also launched an investigation into the braking systems of Toyota's hybrid Prius vehicles.

LENTZ: Toyota's president-chief operating officer apologized for the recall in a print ad.
LENTZ: Toyota's president-chief operating officer apologized for the recall in a print ad.
In a print ad that has run in major newspapers, Jim Lentz, president-chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales USA, said, "I am truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused, and want you to know we're doing everything we can -- as fast as we can -- to get things right." Mr. Lentz also said that the company would "continue to do everything we can to meet -- and exceed -- your expectations and justify your continued trust in Toyota."

Tainted image
More than two-thirds of respondents felt the company was doing a good job of communicating news of the recall (69.7%), and that perception was held about equally among owners (71.8%) and non-owners (67.6%). Some 62.3% said they believed the recall is a sign that Toyota is putting the consumer first. "I think everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and I'm willing to forgive Toyota," wrote one respondent.

And yet, it's clear that the company's image in the marketplace has been muddied. The proportion of Toyota owners that would consider buying a Toyota has decreased -- from 75.6% pre-recall to 59.6%, according to Lightspeed, although the recall had less impact on the buying consideration of Toyota owners, who are significantly more likely than non-owners -- 18.7% vs. 7.6% -- to say they feel more secure about Toyota since the recall. "I appreciate them recalling their products and admitting there has been a mistake, but frankly I had higher expectations," said one respondent.

Toyota's reach among U.S. consumers is significant. Lightspeed said one-third of the survey's respondents currently own a Toyota vehicle, and of those who don't currently own one, 29.6% have owned one in the past. "I want the problem to be fixed quickly and right. And I want to have my faith restored in Toyota again," wrote another person.

But in the meantime, the recall seems to have boosted faith in domestics. Among those commenting in the survey, a recurring theme was echoed by a number of respondents: "Buy American."

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