Moving forward or step backward?

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The brief here is to find a better advertising theme for Toyota Division, the presumption being that the current campaign "Moving forward" is basically worthless.

Which, of course, it is. "Moving forward," from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, Torrance, Calif., says absolutely nothing about Toyota that can't be said of every automobile in the world, and every lawn tractor, skateboard, wristwatch, laxative, goldfish, what have you. It's simply a statement of the generic obvious-unless you ascribe to it a second meaning about technological advancement, in which case it is also a statement of the generic obvious. What is Hyundai selling, a carbureted straight-six with a crank generator and a choke?

Sure, the tagline is technically accurate, but this advertiser might just as well say, "Motorific!" or "Subject to gravity" or "100% fat free!" The idea is to differentiate.

The thing is, however, Toyota's advertising is always undifferentiated and pointless-or worse. "Toyota everyday" was clueless about language. "Everyday" is an adjective that means ordinary, which is not much of a boast. But at least it had the ring of truth. Both the recent "Get the feeling" and the 1980-86 "Oh, what a feeling!" actually traded on the opposite of the reason for purchasing a Toyota. Feeling? Feeling has nothing to do with it. These cars are about quality, reliability, retained value and comfort. They are about fit and finish and ergonomics and the reassuring hum of the double overhead cam engine. The only sense these cars appeal to is common sense.

Hold that thought. Meanwhile let's just agree that Toyota advertising is and has always been pitiful.

No wonder the brand is perennially No. 1 in sales and profit with no end in sight.

Yes, for those of us in the finding-fault-with-others industry, the Toyota phenomenon is one of the Great Mysteries, like the origin of the universe and the career of Ashlee Simpson. If we can accept that great advertising propels great brands-think VW in the '60s, BMW in the '70s, Saturn in the '80s, Mercedes in the '90s, Mini Cooper lately-how do you account for the overwhelming dominance of Toyota? Can intrinsic quality and word-of-mouth render the supposed magic nectar of advertising into merely so much bran, serving to enhance motility in the sales pipeline and nothing more?

Ah. "Moving forward." That explains it.

But as long as we're making assumptions, let's also assume that the status quo won't last forever. Other manufacturers, foreign and domestic, have gradually closed the quality gap. The loyalty engendered by decades of fulfilled promises will not necessarily transfer to the next generations, who perhaps have never been bitterly disappointed by, say, a Chevrolet, and therefore feel no lifelong debt to Toyota. It's worth noting that in the middle of the last century, there were thousands and thousands of men who said, without a trace of irony, "I'm a Buick man." Every single one of them is dead.

Toyota Motor Sales USA understands this. The whole Scion line is evidence that it is looking beyond the baby boom to a more competitive future. But that doesn't mean it can just sit idly by while its biggest market gradually keels over. It is time to use advertising to address the core brand, and to plumb its genuine meaning.

Not styling. These cars are like national candidates for office; they must appeal to a broad constituency. They must be attractive, but they can't take risks.

Not power and performance. Toyota can't be sluggish and awkward, but neither can it be about horsepower. It need only pass the entrance-ramp test without whining.

Not technology. Let others do the pioneering. Toyota's job is to find a way to make the major advancement of five years ago-whether it's GPS or traction control-standard today.

Not prestige. Nobody ever got promoted, or laid, or a parking spot in the circle for pulling up in a Camry.

No, the reason for shopping Toyota has been, and always should be, safety.

Not the crash-test kind; that positioning belongs to Volvo. The safety that defines Toyota is the certain knowledge you can buy one and not make a mistake. It's safely within the styling standards of contemporary good taste. It's safely within the boundaries of reasonable power and performance. It does, in fact, perform well in the crash tests. It's equipped with enough technology to be safely protected from obsolescence. It's not a chick magnet exactly, but it's safe to pull up at the valet without stares of pity and horror.

It's like going to IBM for your IT help. Nobody will ever look at you funny for doing it.

Meanwhile, it's a safe bet the quality will be excellent, and it's a safer bet still that it will retain value for 10 or 15 years, which your Hyundai or Chevy Malibu surely will not.

The creative challenge, then, is for Toyota to convey safety, rationality and broad-based appeal without simultaneously conveying nerdy, or sexless or bland. Oh, and also without lying. Oh, and maybe also while preserving the equity of the insipid "Oh, what a feeling!" tag, which has lingered in the mass psyche despite itself.

And, lo and behold, there is a solution. An obvious one.

The trick is to identify and isolate and glorify in all your marketing communications the feeling generated by the act of making not the emotional decision, but the smart one. In other words, to take Toyota's strongest asset-its supreme rationality-and convert it into emotion. Wait ... gimme 2 seconds. Ah, yes, tapping the warm comforts and the heady self-esteem of pure common sense.

"Toyota: Feel the satisfaction."

The slogan suggests an endless reservoir of creative solutions, possibilities more infinite still when the tag is eventually contracted to simply "Satisfaction."

All right, poetry it isn't, but at least it locates a human pulse in the Ultimate Parking Machine. It also captures and promotes the essence of the brand.

Now, as someone once said, that's moving forward.

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