Toyota reaps a big harvest

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While detroit's big three fuss and fumble, Toyota Motor Sales USA is about to steal from them a bigger chunk of a critical market segment-sport utility vehicles. Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler and General Motors Corp. can blame bad timing, product problems and other quandaries that have come home to roost, if they like, but Toyota's marketers are shifting into high gear.

Toyota launched ads for its fifth SUV model, the Highlander, last week. Highlander's marketing strategists expect to see as many as 30% of the new model's buyers coming over from existing midsize SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer. The reason is not so surprising: The reputation of Explorer was damaged in the fallout from the Bridgestone/Firestone tire failures; DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Cherokee is a dated design awaiting replacement; and GM's SUVs, outside of the long successful Suburban, have not been runaway hits with car buyers.

With all three U.S. carmakers distracted by other problems, Toyota seems almost on cruise control. The timely arrival of new products, smart marketing and a solid reputation with consumers led to a strong year in 2000 even as the U.S. economy slowed. It's allowed Toyota, once a serious factor in the U.S. only in passenger cars, to become a potent force in light trucks and SUVs. Toyota U.S. strategists believe that before long, 40% of sales will be generated by SUVs, pickups and minivans.

While marketers of all sorts weigh how to maneuver in a soft marketplace, they should remember why Toyota seems to be in the driver's seat. It is steady investment in product development; careful attention to quality and consumer taste; consistent marketing support for its brand message-and the sort of patience that comes with commitment to a long-term strategy.

This recipe has cumulative effects that by now should not be mysterious. And marketing executives will serve their companies well by fighting for these kinds of priorities in today's pressured short-term world. Those who succeed in following them, such as Toyota, will drive off with bigger share and bigger profits.

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