U.S. 'Overreaction' Stirs Empathy for Toyota at Home

View From Japan: Public Doesn't Understand American Response to Recalls

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TOKYO (AdAge.com) -- Toyota Corp.'s beating in the U.S. press and at the hands of American politicians has left loyal Japanese consumers concerned and suspicious.

Americans are "overreacting," said Takashi Takeda of DDB Worldwide Japan, Tokyo. "When Japanese see this excessive reaction happening in the U.S., they feel pity for Toyota. Recalls always happen. Trust for Toyota is huge in this market and was not built overnight."

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While Toyota scrambles to revise its marketing message in America, little has changed in Japan. The car giant has added a discreet, muted apology to ads there and scaled back at least one launch campaign, but it's going ahead with the introduction of new models.

"It's an example of cultures colliding. The average consumer in Japan is not reacting in the same way and marketing professionals here are a bit daunted by the proactive role that America's government has had," said Chris Beaumont, a Tokyo-based branding consultant and a marketing professor at Tokyo University.

"People here are surprised at how visible the recall has been and wonder, 'If Toyota is hurt, is Japan Inc. hurt?'" Mr. Beaumont said. "To what extent will Japan be affected adversely rather than just Toyota?"

Deep implications
That's a serious concern, since Japan is struggling to emerge from one of its deepest recessions in the post war era, and its success will depend largely on exports of major multinationals such as Toyota and Honda, another Japanese car maker that has announced recalls recently.

Dependent on exports and confused by the American media's wish to draw blood, Japanese are attributing the reaction in the U.S. to a desire by politicians and corporations to get America's car market back on its feet. "There is concern that if Toyota's problems do not improve, the recovery pace of Japan's economy will slow down, too," Mr. Takeda said. "We see U.S. nationalism at work."

Toyota's problems have played more dramatically on the American stage because one of the models involved in the recall is the Prius, a darling of movie stars and eco-conscious moms alike. The Prius has become a symbol of environmental awareness and responsibility, turning it into one of Toyota's top-sellers in America and one of its most visible brands.

But that's not the case in Asia, where the Prius remains relatively unknown, particularly in China, now the world's-largest car market and a key growth opportunity for Toyota. The Japanese company sold 709,000 cars last year in China, a more than double increase over 2008.

Toyota has only recalled 75,552 vehicles to date in China, all RAV4 SUVs, which is less than 1% of the total of 9 million called back worldwide. The RAV4 is the only model sold in China that is fitted with the same faulty floor mats or sticky gas pedals plaguing the company in the U.S., and is not one of Toyota's top sellers in China.

The Japanese aren't entirely blaming Toyota's PR problems on American hysteria, frenzied foreign press coverage and nationalism, however. There is genuine concern that Japan has lost the values that made the country so successful in the first place, a meticulous quest for perfection. The errors that led to the recall and the muted way that Toyota handled the problem initially have led Japanese to question the foundation of its modern society.

Toyota's PR crisis highlights one of the challenges facing multinationals: coping with cross-border problems fueled by the internet.

"The bigger message is that we are borderless, and when a disaster like this happens, how do you handle it from the center? It gets into the psychology¬ of Japanese vs. U.S. styles of handling a crisis," Mr. Beaumont said.

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Contributing: Yang Jian at Automotive News China, a Crain Communications publication

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