Toyota generated buzz with a Super Bowl spot for the new Camry Hybrid featuring an acculturated Hispanic father and son.
Now, when Americans think of hybrids, they think of Toyota; the company has a 75% share of the segment.
Building over time
Toyota initially targeted Prius at early adopters and opinion leaders who became advocates. It didn't hurt to have Hollywood stars such as Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio in energy-conscious California buy and endorse the cars.
Then Toyota rolled out its muscle. In 2005, Toyota spent an estimated $50 million on a multimedia ad blitz trying to brand its Hybrid Synergy Drive. The dollars invested dwarfed anything Detroit had been doing for its hybrids.
Charlie Hughes, president of consultant BrandRules, calls the Prius an innovative product that has captured Americans' "burgeoning interest in all things green." He says much of Toyota's success in the green arena is due to its "kaizen" or continuous-improvement mantra, based on a Japanese term Mr Hughes says "means anti-waste, either being green or fuel-efficient."
Toyota's hybrids have moved into the mainstream of late, spurred largely by volatile gas prices but also by society's growing interest in foreign-oil dependence and global warming.
Billboard ads tout the number of gallons of gas saved and the carbon-dioxide-emission reduction by hybrid drivers. The automaker generated buzz during the Super Bowl with a Conill-generated spot for the new Camry Hybrid.
Out of the gate
The carmaker upped Prius production by 50% last fall and kicked off a new ad campaign in April to let buyers know there's product available and to dispel the misconception that hybrids cost too much, says Ernest Bastien, VP of Toyota Division's vehicle-operations group. Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., created the national and regional dealer ads, which also tout "eco-nomic" discounts for Prius of up to $2,000 on certain options packages.
"Now we are testing more conventional marketing techniques" for hybrids, including lease and financing deals earlier this year, Mr. Bastien says.
Lexus started hybrid-owner nights last year to educate them about the technologies and trained its dealers so they could do their own seminars.
Toyota Division is in the early months of an 18-month tour, "Highway to the Future: Mobile Hybrid Experience," that Mr. Bastien says aims to reach 250,000, promoting hybrid awareness and education. More than 40,000 people have participated, spending an average of 18 minutes in one of two trailers traveling cross-country to various events. Roughly 25% of those visitors have asked for more information about Toyota's hybrid vehicles.
Tour visitors can have their names put on trees Toyota will plant in the 48 contiguous states. Toyota connected with the National Arbor Day Foundation for the tree project, saying the trees would offset the carbon footprint of the tour's trucks. By the end of the tour, Toyota will ensure that at least 50,000 trees are planted.
Other green marketing moves included sponsorship of Project Greenhouse, the eco-awareness suite at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and backing for the Sundance Channel's "The Green" series, which began in April.
"The Green" website links to a Lexus page that gives more information about its hybrid tour, as well as a content area called Hybrid Living, where it profiles people and establishments around the U.S. that embody progressive green lifestyles, such as an organic restaurant in Chicago.
Toyota has extended its green approach to other parts of the company. It has a small team of engineers in each of its factories here. Their job is to improve energy efficiencies every year, a spokesman says. In the past year, the company switched to fluorescent light bulbs in all 13 of its North American plants, reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and saving an estimated $2.5 million. At the same time, the carmaker says it's reduced energy use in North American operations 30% since 2000.
Toyota has been an Energy Star partner since 2003; in March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency honored the carmaker's engineering and manufacturing arm with a National Model of Sustained Excellence award. Energy Star products must meet strict energy-efficiency standards for products.
And the automaker's internal "Think Green" program aims to recycle materials so they don't end up in landfills. Toyota Motor Sales said in January it had zero waste sent to landfills from its headquarters in Torrance. The Torrance facility has a gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating from the U.S. Green Building Council and includes solar panels to partly power the building. The McKinney, Texas, Toyota dealership is the first U.S. dealer to apply for LEED certification, and programs such as "Keep IT Green" recycle computer equipment.
Toyota sold just 5,600 gas-and-battery-powered cars in 2000 and only 24,600 in 2003. The automaker, which has since expanded its hybrid offerings, recently projected its Toyota and Lexus hybrid-vehicle sales will tally more than 250,000 units this year. And with the Lexus LS 600h L hybrid expected to turn heads this summer, Toyota has proved again it is not bashful when staking out new territory as it challenges the wealthy traveler willing to spend $100,000-plus on a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle.