Toyota to Push Safety in Upcoming Ad Blitz

With Sales Down, Automaker Battles 'Perception Issue'

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Its image still bruised by driver complaints about unintended acceleration, Toyota Division has decided to revamp its marketing message and shift the focus to safety in a big way, top executives told Automotive News last week.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s overall sales fell 34% in August and are down 1% for the year -- it's the only major manufacturer with a decline for 2010. Executives admit that consumers have doubts about the safety and quality of Toyota vehicles, so the automaker is planning an advertising blitz to counter that perception.

For years, Toyota's brand message has been based on quality, durability and reliability, with a dash of value thrown in at the tagline. But with both Toyota loyalists and possible converts now skeptical of that message, the automaker is putting safety first.

"What we're dealing with is a perception issue, and brand perceptions are not brand realities," said Bob Carter, Toyota Division general manager. "If a customer has removed us from their consideration list, it was because of a perception of Toyota safety."

Since November, Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles worldwide and 10.5 million in the United States, most for complaints related to unintended acceleration.

In January, the company suspended sales of eight models linked to allegations of runaway vehicles. Recalls were issued for sticky throttle pedals and incorrectly installed floor mats, which Toyota insists are the causes of its unintended-acceleration problems.

Federal regulators studying reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles said last month that a preliminary review of crash data recordings had found no evidence of electronic causes.

Crucial attribute
Mr. Carter said the safety theme will continue in Toyota's brand advertising until consumer attitudes change.

"If you look at various attributes of cars -- performance, handling, value -- those are set like a volume knob [on a stereo] by consumers," Mr. Carter said in an interview. "But safety, that's a light switch. Either you have it or you don't."

Toyota is still working on creative elements of the campaign, which will be handled by Saatchi, Los Angeles. Executives aren't offering details, except to say ads will feature the Star Safety System, which includes enhanced vehicle stability control and traction control, antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist.

Overseeing the campaign is Bill Fay, who took over in May as Toyota group VP-marketing. Mr. Fay, 55, previously was in charge of sales administration.

"We're going to evolve from kind-of apologizing to being a bit more confident and reassuring in the QDR [quality, durability and reliability] that got us this far," Mr. Fay said in an interview.

Toyota brand's U.S. sales dropped 35% in August. That was partly because the brand was the No. 1 beneficiary of cash-for-clunkers trade-ins last August. That gave Toyota a tough mark to equal this year. But Toyota Division was also down 14.4% compared with July sales -- more than any other major brand.

Toyota remained the No. 1 brand in retail sales in August. And Toyota says fleet sales were just 6% of volume.

Toyota says its conquest sales have returned to pre-crisis levels, about 57% of total sales.

Compete Automotive, a consulting firm that tracks buyer behavior, shows that consideration of Toyota by shoppers has declined significantly since January. But the percentage shopping only for a Toyota has stayed relatively stable throughout the crisis, said Dennis Bulgarelli, a Compete director.

Since early summer, Compete has also noted an increase in interest in Toyota from people who also shop other brands, although that may have been driven by increased incentive spending by Toyota.

That surge has put interest in Toyota almost back to pre-recall levels, though it is still below year-ago levels, Mr. Bulgarelli said.

Said Mr. Fay of the coming ad campaign: "We need to make an emotional connection with people who own or are considering our product. We need to address the concerns of the customer, based on what we've been through this year."

He said the safety campaign should run well into 2011.

"This is not a short-term thing where we run an execution or two," Mr. Fay said. "We still have QDR. We just have to assure customers that's the case."

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