Toyota's Problem More Than Just Stuck Accelerators

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

The massive recalls announced by Toyota Motor Corp. have created a crisis for the automaker. But this isn't simply a matter of the company talking itself out of a jam caused by faulty accelerators. Rather, it's a matter of a brand losing its way.

To be sure, there will be thousands of words spilled about crisis communications. (Every such article or opinion piece will mention Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol, as if fear of certain death by poisoning is the exact same thing as fear of possible death due to a sticking accelerator.) While Toyota, agency Saatchi & Saatchi and PR firm Robinson Lerer & Montgomery do need to figure out a solid game plan to get out of this, the underlying issue that led to this moment must be addressed.

And that issue is the sacrifice of Toyota's key attribute -- quality -- as the company became fixated on growth.

This is not the first slip-up by Toyota. The automaker has been grappling with quality glitches in recent years that many believe arose because Toyota was so focused on displacing General Motors as the world's largest automaker that it lost the "Toyota way." Indeed, Consumer Reports, which once automatically gave redesigned Toyota models a "recommend" designation, quit doing so in 2007 after it had begun to notice quality lapses. In that light, the recent crisis seems like an inevitable conclusion.

The former poster child for growth, GM, is offering incentives in the wake of Toyota's missteps, saying its dealers are fielding demands from unhappy Toyota customers. Ford, too, has rolled out a $1,000 incentive to those looking to trade in Toyotas and other imports. But the decision was motivated in part by Toyota's woes.

Ford in this case finds itself in a great position, as its name has become more and more associated with quality in recent years.

And that's what Toyota has to get back to doing. Toyota's new CEO, Akio Toyoda -- grandson of the company's founder -- has made it a priority to rebuild Toyota's quality image. The only way to rebuild the image is to make sure the cars live up to that image. One other idea: Follow the Hyundai and Kia playbook and offer a 10-year warranty on new cars.

Toyota has one thing going for it -- customer loyalty built up over the years. But loyalty will only get a company so far, especially if lives are at stake. Toyota will need astute crisis communications and a lot of luck to get out of this specific mess. And if it's lucky enough to do so, it's going to have to get back to that Toyota way.

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