The Toyota recall is a great example of how a company can have a great brand (or brands), then make one mistake and watch it all go down the tubes.
Harry Truman used to say something along these lines -- the president should be habitually uneasy. His point? Much responsibility rests on a president’s shoulders, and it would be wrong if our leader didn’t sweat about these massive responsibilities and the possibility that a single slip-up could ruin everything.
As I like to say, people buy brands, they don’t buy companies…. But in Toyota’s case, things are not so clear-cut. With the exception of its branding master-stroke of Lexus, Toyota cross-labels every one of its car brands with its corporate brand.
One may ask, what's the problem with this kind of corporate brand strategy? Well, when one product in the corporate line-up has a problem, so does the entire corporate brand and all of the individual brands under the corporate umbrella.
In this case: If one of Toyota’s car brands has a problem, it infects all of Toyota’s cars and its corporate image. This won’t happen —or be as grave— if Chevy has a recall (i.e., the Cadillac brand won’t be touched).
So what now?
Well, it’s crisis management time, and after the folks at Toyota work their way through the recall, they need to look ahead with marketing in mind.
First, they ought to start unwinding the connection between their corporate brand and their individual car brands. Part of this process will be emphasizing the car brands that don’t have the foot pedal problem (i.e., Sienna, Solara, Yaris, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser , the Land Cruiser and even the 2010 Prius --although it's got some problems of its own).
How should Toyota handle the contamination? They need to create something like a Toyota Safety Program. For example, each car buyer should receive a card with the purchaser’s name on it and a booklet that outlines what Toyota will do for the safety of the driver and his/her family. There should be a 24-hour safety hotline that the new buyer can call. And finally, how about a free loaner car to be used by the owner during regular maintenance checkups?
In the face of all the negative publicity, Toyota needs to emphasize the positive and remember that marketing begins with fundamental things like separating the individual car brands and putting quality control first.
Toyota must show that it is all about putting its customers first.
John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert and the founder and president of Marketing Department of America. His book, "People Buy Brands Not Companies," will be published in early February.