Toyota… Another Nail in the Brand Coffin

We already live in a world where we are skeptical of corporate messaging and product advertising. What we didn’t need is the relentless press coverage about Toyota ignoring safety issues. This has simply put another nail in the coffin, making it that much harder for marketers to build credibility in their brands.

Great brands are built on strong foundations of clear values and willingness to live them every day. Up until this past month, no one would question Toyota’s credibility as a manufacturer of high quality and safe products. But because they didn’t pay attention to the importance of this significant aspect of the Toyota brand relationship with its customers, they will pay a price for a long period of time, well into the future. Put another way, they weren’t up front with their customers, and now we trust them a bit less.

It’s a lot like the Tiger Woods brand. We all saw him as the classy sports icon that lived a model life on and off the course. But he let us down as well. It’s no wonder that recently Gatorade followed the list of sponsors who have torn up their contracts. Because the product – Tiger himself – didn’t live up to brand expectations, the power of that brand is less than it was. Would it have been better if the Tiger Woods brand had a more realistic bad boy edge like Alex Rodriguez or Michael Jordan? Would we be more understanding if he hadn’t been positioned as such a highly disciplined and principled family man?

These two seminal brands have made it that much harder for all brands to create the trust inherent in sustaining a long-term economic relationship with their key audiences. We have all become just a bit more skeptical than we were before. So we believe a little less in brand promises. Translating this into economic terms, each brand has raised a barrier of concern for consumers. I know I’ll think about safety when I consider a Toyota product.

So here are some things for marketers to think about. First, go back to basics. Start all over again and ask the hard questions about the brand values underpinning the relationship your brand has with its customers. Be willing to put everything on the table and meaningfully debate if your brand is living its promise. The rudiments of powerful brands have changed, and companies must rethink many aspects of their brands if they are to succeed.

Second, work hard to understand what “transparency” means for your brand. While a simple word, adopting the concept is a very complex proposition. How willing is your brand to put it all out there and take the barbs? If you can’t be completely transparent, think through the impact and determine strategies to build the brand with these limitations. Not all brands can or should be completely transparent.

Third, look for ways to anticipate possible problems. Many companies have pre-empted consumer backlash by getting ahead of the curve. For example, Disney hired a well-respected zoologist, a conservation biologist and a very experienced veterinarian to be part of the core team as it opened the Disney Animal Kingdom. They anticipated the issues that could damage the Disney brand, and jumped ahead by hiring an all-star team. Toyota needs to show more than words and pledges. It needs to demonstrate a tangible product safety process that is believable. Perhaps they should hire a safety czar.

Fourth, communicate, communicate, communicate. Toyota could have lessened the media barrage by having in place a well-oiled crisis communications machine. But because they stumbled a bit, they received the brunt of the negative press. We all know there are auto recalls all the time. In the weeks following, both Honda and Nissan had recalls, and most recently, GM. But Toyota got behind the curve and suffered by receiving all the media attention.

For businesses, building brand relationships is getting harder and harder all the time. Toyota just made it that much more difficult. But there are steps that smart branders can take if they are willing to  step back and deeply rethink the underlying brand values and how they are manifest in all interactions.

For one, I am crushed when a brand I believe in lets me down. And I hate falling into the trap of feeling that I should have known better. I want to believe in brands. They make it easier for me to make decisions, both big and small, about the kinds of products and services I can count on.

Now I’m just that much more skeptical than I was yesterday. Imagine millions of consumers feeling the same way.