Toyota's the carmaker to beat

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Toyota division will keep on trucking in 2004.

"The real thrust of our advertising this year will be the Tundra" full-size pickup, at least through June, says James Lentz, VP-marketing for the division of Toyota Motor Sales USA.

Until Toyota's new 2004 Tundra Double Cab arrived with a longer bed and four doors, the automaker wasn't considered a serious contender in the segment dominated by Detroit. Mr. Lentz says he expects to sell 120,000 Tundras this year; half will be Double Cabs.

This fall, Toyota will launch its first sport-utility vehicle with a hybrid gas-electric engine, the 2005 Highlander, and introduces its redone Tacoma midsize pickup, aimed mainly at men.

In recent years, Toyota has beefed up its SUV lineup, part of the truck category, and now has five SUVs. Deborah Wahl Meyer, corporate manager-marketing communications at the carmaker, says she's studying whether to group all five SUVs into single ads to demonstrate the brand's depth in the segment. She used the tactic last year in ads touting good gas mileage for several Toyota models.

scion finally rolls out

Toyota will extend its car lineup with strong ad support from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, Torrance, Calif. The carmaker is rolling out its youth-targeted Scion sub-brand nationally this year from its selected-state 2003 debut. Toyota expects Scion to contribute to another annual sales jump for the division with ads from independent Attik, San Francisco.

Toyota's second-generation Prius fuel-efficient, hybrid-engine car had so many orders that the marketer canceled the vehicle's first-quarter media schedule and moved it into April, Ms. Meyer says.

Ms. Meyer disputes comments by some experts that the brand's advertising isn't emotional enough. "A lot of our spots have already done that," she says, citing current Tundra ads tied to its entry in Nascar's Craftsman Series.

Toyota's biggest challenge in 2004, she adds, is maintaining momentum.

That momentum is a virtual juggernaut. Even during the industry's slowest selling months of January and February in 2004, Toyota Division says it sold 250,133 vehicles, a 15% jump from a year ago. For the first quarter, sales climbed 10% to 399,329. Toyota also reported its best March truck sales in 2004.

In calendar 2003, the division reported an annual record of 1.6 million units sold, a 5.6% hike from '02 and the brand's 10th straight year of sales topping 1 million units. The Camry midsize car line was the nation's best-selling car for the second year in a row. Mr. Lentz says the Corolla small-car line outsold the Honda Civic in 2003 for the first time since the 1970s, with a 28% increase to 325,477 units. Corolla last year outsold the entire lineups of some other carmakers, including Mitsubishi Motors North America, Mazda North American Operations and Kia Motors America.

true to its core

"A lot of people are kind of discounting Toyota" saying its vehicles have become staid and boring, says Todd Turner, president of consultancy CarConcepts. "But Toyota has stayed true to its core, and I see no vulnerability for that brand."

The auto brand spent $663 million in measured media last year, up 3.9% from 2002, says TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. Toyota's 2004 ad budget, however, will be flat compared with `03, Ms. Meyer says. To maximize her budget, she's increased Internet spending.

The automaker inked a one-year, exclusive auto marketing deal with eBay a few months ago, a first of its kind for the online auction house with a carmaker. Toyota gets a major presence on eBay Motors with banner ads and rich media, plus a link to a new Web site showcasing the automaker's entire lineup.

Toyota did its first charity fund-raiser last month with eBay, auctioning a redone 2004 Solara convertible, a trip and other goodies as part of the car's launch.

Toyota will pick up truck share with its Tundra this year, but it won't put a big dent in Detroit, predicts Doug Scott, an analyst with consultancy Allison-Fisher. The brand could win positive consumer perception points with its hybrid-engine models if gasoline prices continue to rise.

"Toyota is just going to keep marching on," Mr. Turner says.

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