How Toyota Uses Consumer Research to Stay No. 1

At Advertising Research Foundation: Don't Bore the Audience

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NEW YORK ( -- "Researchers have become rock stars in this business," Alan Wurtzel, president-research and media development, NBC Universal, said at the top of the Advertising Research Foundation's Rethink conference in New York yesterday.
Alan Wurtzel
Photo: Doug Goodman

Alan Wurtzel

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Scion example
While there was a distinct lack of pyrotechnics and no mosh pit to be found, the accompanying panel on Toyota's use of research to propel itself to No. 1 global automaker provided enough evidence to support Mr. Wurtzel's claim.

Morning keynote speaker Steve Sturm, Toyota's group VP-strategic research, said research has played a key role in the Japanese manufacturer's biggest vehicles targeted toward the 18-to-34 demographic, particularly the Scion. The youth-friendly car just wrapped the first stage of its campaign, which included interactive and engagement components atypical of the traditional print and TV launch.

"The traffic had to be started virally. That audience bores very easily so our website is redesigned three times a year," Mr. Sturm said. "We're going to be airing commercials not where you [as boomers] would find them or in magazines you wouldn't expect to go."
Steve Sturm
Steve Sturm Credit: Doug Goodman

Not afraid to pull products
Co-panelist Debbie Pruent, chief operating officer for GfK Custom Research North America, said people tend to look at innovation as a quick fix but Toyota has succeeded at being a company that innovates over time. Mr. Sturm added: "If we learn that the first model is not going to be successful we're not afraid to pull the products. Our friends in Detroit take a little bit longer to adjust."

One of the most well-defined emerging segments of the auto industry has been the full-size pickup truck, which Toyota entered in 1999 with the Tundra. "We had to go back many decades and look at what the truck is and how you find niches out of segments that don't exist today," he said.

Having worked for General Motors for 10 years, Ms. Pruent could attest to the importance of holistically understanding the consumer. Her advice for the struggling American manufacturers: "It really comes down to discipline. What separates the domestics from the Japanese is they're focused on high-volume vehicles. But you've got to get into the key markets."
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