SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- Toyota Motor Corp.'s recall of millions of cars globally has created a PR fiasco for the Japanese car company. In China, the company now has one more thing to worry about.
Negative feelings towards Toyota are bubbling just as World Consumer Rights Day is popping up on the calendar. Every year on March 15, brands are regularly taken to task by both media and netizens for poor service.
World Consumer Rights Day started in 1983 and today is only faintly observed in many countries, but China's vocal consumers take it seriously.
Given the problems it is already facing this year, Toyota could be headed for a perfect storm in the mainland -- and things are likely to get worse for the company before they get better.
For the rest of us though, important lessons can be learned in analyzing how Toyota's problems are playing out, especially regarding the role of the internet and social media.
Japanese products already had image problems
First, unlike in other markets, the Japanese auto industry absolutely does not have a good reputation for quality. Chinese conventional wisdom believes Japanese companies use lower quality materials and processes when they manufacture products for the Chinese market in comparison to other markets, including the use of thinner paint and thinner body materials.
This belief is so pervasive that even Toyota President Akio Toyoda acknowledged it in his speech to the Chinese people on March 2, 2010.
The internet and social media are not playing a new role in the Toyota recall issue developing in China, but rather a very familiar one. Going back seven years, China's crises have been initiated or significantly amplified on the internet.
The trend started with the Teflon cancer scare in 2004, and continued with KFC's use of a cancer-causing food coloring, Sudan (2005), the SK-II chromium scare (2006), Starbucks' presence in Beijing's Forbidden City (2007), the tragedies caused by powdered infant formula tainted by melamine (2008), the Johnson Baby cream problem (2009), and the Sprite mercury scare (2010).
Taking the problem full circle, Toyota has the unenviable distinction of having started the trend of netizen involvement in a crisis with its 2003 Land Cruiser ads, one of the first cases globally in which netizens' reactions to offensive ads were picked up by traditional media. In one ad, two stone lions, Chinese symbols of authority, salute as a Prado passes. Another shows a Toyota Land Cruiser towing what appears to be a Chinese military vehicle.
Toyota is just recovering from another more recent issue that was widely discussed online in China, the so-called "Climbing-Abilitygate" incident involving its Highlander SUV. A frustrated car owner made and distributed a video online of his Highlander, which was unable to climb a 30 degree incline, a slope easily handled by other SUVs and even Chery's tiny QQ compact car. The Highlander has become the standard against which other SUV's are measured for failure.
Advertisers should pay attention to microblogs
Blogs and social networking sites serve as a sort of "copy and paste" news distribution, and bulletin board sites (BBS) are the battlefield of rival car owners' groups. News portals serve to aggregate, amplify and add fuel to the fire.
Relatively new on the landscape is the microblog, which suddenly is playing a bigger role. For example, Sina's microblog
Key players in any crisis are the brand fans. In China, car brand fans come in the form of owners' groups. Unlike bloggers in the U.S., Chinese do not organize themselves on social networking sites, but rather on BBS and in private groups on Tencent's QQ.com social networking portal.
Car brand fans are particularly passionate and connected in China. For example, the Toyota Camry group on XCar alone has 2,082 members who generate 9,326 comments every month. They organize offline meet-ups, design logos for the group, organize group purchases and even design customized accessories like key chains.
For most Chinese, the car they have now is the first car they or anyone in their family has ever owned, and that car is very much a part of their identity. As such, they are fiercely loyal and protective of the brand, defending any attacks or slurs from rival brand owners.
Manipulating online conversations is a turn-off
Some advertisers are developing "social CRM' initiatives that can mobilize these fans in times of need. Unfortunately, most marketers currently do not view these active owners as friends, but rather as the enemy.
Bloggers have complained online, for instance, that Toyota deletes negative posts through so-called "e-PR" agencies. Chinese netizens are very savvy to such manipulation. While such an approach may make the PR manager feel better, it only enrages the very constituents that should be rallied to support the brand they love.
We see brand fans across all industries mobilizing protests for Consumer Day over far less serious issues than what Toyota is facing now in China. This is a real crisis, with documented safety problems, for a brand that already has issues.
In the U.S., the much-loved brand is being knocked off a pedestal, but in China, it's digging into a deeper hole. Actions such as manipulating online conversations will only serve as a catalyst for already angry and passionate owners.
Brands that fail to recognize the sophistication and complexity of the Chinese social media landscape during crisis communications not only miss opportunities to minimize the crisis but, more seriously, can further damage the brand.
Toyota's brand will recover, but the question is how fast. A transparent, proactive communication which leverages the passion of Toyota's online consumers, can, even more than Mr. Toyoda's tears in front of the U.S. Congress, facilitate sincere and powerful word-of-mouth that will supplement and be more convincing than any traditional media communications.
Sam Flemming is the Shanghai-based founder and CEO of CIC, a social media research and consulting firm in China.
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