How Toyota Got in Touch with the Heartland

Automaker Taps Boutique Shops that Speak Pickup Buyers' Language

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- It's an epiphany that could make Toyota the No. 1 car manufacturer in the U.S.: When it comes to full-size trucks, a tow hitch is not a tow hitch. It's a receiving hitch.

To you, that may seem like just one tiny detail in Toyota's Tundra advertising campaign due out in February. But to Toyota's group VP-Marketing Jim Farley, it's one of many significant payoffs from the multiagency team he has assembled and called his "fantasy advertising league."

The league is a collection of small and boutique agencies that have collaboratively produced the Tundra TV spots, brochures, outdoor advertising and website. As a creative unit they're still helmed by Toyota's longtime agency of record in the U.S., Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, but these small shops-with their understanding of and affinity for their own local markets-are helping take Toyota and Saatchi out of their California offices and into the American heartland.

There, between Western Pennsylvania and Kansas, Toyota's so-called conquest customers are quick to point out that there's a big difference between turf and honest-to-goodness grass, or a tow hitch and receiving hitch, so it's important to Toyota that its marketing doesn't confuse the two.

Normally when a marketer wants a campaign that targets a specific consumer, it farms out projects to various roster agencies that claim to have a particular strength in reaching those consumers, or the company just trusts that its regular agency of record can find that killer research insight to connect with the desired demographic.

Of course, in Toyota's case, Saatchi did lots of research, but that wasn't enough. "Most agencies would stop right there," said David Murphy, president, Saatchi, L.A. "What we did after that was identify some freelance talent and even some small boutique agencies out in heartland America that really live and breathe this stuff daily." So, instead of acquiring a language secondhand, Saatchi decided to bring in agencies that share the conquest customer's mother tongue.

local heroes

Of course it was also an interesting way for an agency that's worked for the same marketer for 20-some years to refresh its thinking and maintain its relevance.

The agency chose a roster of shops that had proved themselves on a local level through work for fishing-tackle or seed companies, or had already shown a connection with the consumer via TV work for Caterpillar or Harley-Davidson. Hoping for brochures that would pop, Saatchi even looked into design firms that work on country-western CD covers.

Speaking for one such partner, Paul Brothers, president-senior creative director of Tulsa, Okla.'s Brothers & Co., said: "When you start bringing guys from Oklahoma that drive pickups and kill Bambi's dad to the table ... that's a huge step in saying: 'Look, the mission is simple. Do what's best for the customer. Do what's best for a time-honored, outstanding, nationally-acclaimed relationship."'

Brothers & Co. had been working with Toyota on its pro-bass-fishing-team sponsorship when Senior VP Jeff Tolle found himself at a Toyota dinner sitting next to Saatchi's group creative director on the Tundra, Erich Funke. The fit couldn't have been more natural: 80% of Brothers employees drive pickups. And many of them are Fords and Chevys.

A creative process involving so many groups could have been unwieldy, but Mr. Farley credited Saatchi for guiding the process, acting as a filter and keeping it relatively streamlined. After so many years together, he said, "they know us almost more than we know ourselves."

Mr. Funke called their role "classic creative direction. Whether we were just working with internal teams or classic freelancers or creative partners, ultimately it comes down to management-us having the core vision, offering guidance and having the collaborative effect culminates in the effect that we need."

There were competitive aspects to the process, however. "We defined the core ideas for two TV campaigns. We let all the groups go after it," Mr. Farley said. Toyota and Saatchi narrowed the resulting ideas down to three, picking out key points to retain from all of the work. Once the spots were chosen, the ads were again given to the entire group of shops to let them "take a whack."

"Some of them became tonality advisers, others became production resources," Mr. Farley said. "We were starting to see that the partners had a lot of value in areas that are hard to predict at the beginning of the process."

As Mr. Brothers put it: "It's like playing a golf scramble. The group from Minneapolis hit the 325-yard drive, so we all picked up our shank drives and walked up and put our ball there."

Saatchi has, according to Mr. Murphy, rolled up all the expenses of this model into its normal agency fee for Toyota. The partners, for their part, are compensated as subcontractors presented with budgets within which they have to complete their work.

Neither Toyota nor Saatchi would comment on the total dollar amount spent on this experiment, although TNS Media Intelligence estimates Toyota spent $52 million on Tundra advertising across all media in the first three quarters of 2006, on par with the same period during 2005.

While Mr. Farley concedes the process has been expensive and the group has had to add time to the now 10-month-long working period, he sees his department using this model again. Mr. Murphy sees the model becoming even more streamlined in the future, even with different partners and clients. Saatchi does not yet have another client lined up for this approach but, he said, "we will be doing this again on projects in the future. It does start reshaping the culture of Saatchi, L.A., more toward being an idea lab and less like an agency trying to solve everything within its four walls."
Most Popular
In this article: