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If its strong monthly sales lead continues, the 1997 Camry will be the year's best-selling car-and the first Toyota ever to capture the sales crown.

Camry shows the virtues of conservative values. But Toyota Motor Sales USA exercised fiscal prudence, prodding engineers to add features and cut costs. That let Toyota communicate how it delivered more sedan for a lower sticker price.

Contrast this with the sales slump for rival Taurus when Ford Motor Co. applied a radical redesign and higher price to its '96 model.

"I think we did a better job of listening," says Toyota Division VP-Sales Don Esmond, who led the Camry launch as series team leader and helped reconcile marketing's needs with engineering issues.

"What we heard from our customers is they wanted to keep the `Camryness,' so to speak, of the product, but they wanted more Camry-more safety, more room, more power, the same Toyota quality, and all of that for a better value," he adds.

Camry's estimated $50 million TV, magazine, outdoor and direct mail launch campaign in fall `96 was as understated as the car. The simple theme from agency Saatchi & Saatchi/Pacific, Torrance, Calif.: "The new Camry. Better than ever."

"We had a very strong feeling that beating on our chest isn't going to tell the correct story," says Mr. Esmond, 53.

"We just needed to get our message out about what the product was, but with a little bit of humanity along with it."

The result is the '97 Camry has the highest initial quality of any new car ever rated by researcher J.D. Power & Associates.

After launch, Toyota kept listening. Through last December, managers at Toyota called every new Camry owner a week after purchase to see if they were having any problems.

Camry was a textbook launch-literally. Toyota has assembled a booklet precisely detailing how it brought the new model to market, and the document will be pulled out for future introductions.

This could be a best-selling book among car marketers-except, Mr. Esmond says, this one's not for sale.

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