advertising and other stuff. no, really.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toyota gets hammered by Congress—what a feeling.

Because I’m in the mood to break down the current Toyota fun, that’s why. Anyone in advertising, marketing or PR not watching Toyota leadership before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation missed the fun.

The more I watched the hearings live, the more I was drawn in by how the their testimony either undid or reinforced the brand’s current Mea Culpa World Tour 2010. CEO Akio Toyoda from Japan, Toyota Motor Corporation (and grandson of the founder), appeared with translator and president and CEO of Toyota Motor North America, Yoshimi Inaba.

And it went a little something like this...

I wouldn’t do that. Toyota had disregarded the advice of ad agency Saatchi to pull current ads and lay low. That defiant attitude was on display by CEO Toyoda who spouted the “We must do better next time” mantra. It only shows that despite your best recommendations, brands are run by people, and people do whatever the hell they want. The last person you trust when you’re in siege mode is anyone who isn’t right next to you fighting back the hordes, and brands for the most part think they know what’s best for them.

Let them tire themselves out. Toyoda ran the rope-a-dope, played prevent, bend don’t break, or whatever sports cliché you prefer that describes a defensive mindset where you’re trying to ward off an opponent.

All America, all the time. Pity the brand who hurts the friend of a U.S. senator because basically, it’s your ass. It was clear that a pro-America attitude was the theme of the day, by the committee, at least as several senators recounted how people they knew experienced stuck pedals. Forget “partnerships between global brands to build a new kind of company” as one thing was made clear: Americans were hurt and the Japanese were going to pay. Yes, I said Japan and not just Toyota. The vibe of the panel was clear.

Welcome. Now, why did you kill people with your product? The duality of a committee hearing’s protocols is a thing of beauty forever. (I think Keats said that?) They smile, welcome you with open arms, say “konichiwa” and thank you for coming, then, attack. Wear a cup.

Vote for me. If you had any doubt that politicians live in their own constituency fish bowl, far away from the national spotlight, forget it. The separation between senators without an agenda (beyond protecting consumers), and those with a Toyota plant in their backyard couldn’t have been any clearer about their motives. Anyone with said auto jobs in their state, to a person, thanked Toyota execs for coming, and even apologized to them for what they’re now going through.

(I have no axe to grind here, as I own a 2004 Camry that fortunately has had no problems. Nobody I know with a Toyota has had any, either. But, I also understand how those who have suffered are beyond furious. If it were me, I’d be out for blood, not sitting here breaking down testimony. What Toyota execs are *going through* in no way compares to the loss suffered by the family of anyone killed due to a faulty car.)

Ass-whooping. The most compelling beatdown by a U.S. senator of a witness that I have ever seen was delivered by Congresswoman Kaptur of Ohio. Rope a dope or not, that one hurt Toyota as she pointed out the number of related deaths.

PR fail. Quite simply, whoever prepped Team Toyota in the War Room of the hotel apparently did it in separate rooms, much like splitting up two accomplices in an attempt to get one of them to roll first. As I said up top, the testimony often undermined the message of Toyota’s current ad campaign.

“We need to do better going forward” is fine as a general message to satiate consumers—in front of a senate panel out for blood? It’s disingenuous at best given the severity of the charges. They want yes or no answers. They want someone to say, yes, I did it. It’s my fault. They want Sepaku.

Barring that, nothing short of an Oprah free car giveaway is going to please consumers for some time.

Rosetta Stone ftw. Aka, PR fail part 2. You better have speakers who are fluent in English and your brand’s current situation and or history. In a yes or no arena, you can’t take a minute to respond, let alone with an answer that sidesteps the question. They derailed their own PR effort with translation issues.

CEO Toyoda clearly stuck with the company “We must do better” line way too often, while Inaba understood better the nuances of questions and answered promptly—but at times also undermined what his boss said.

Contrast that with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who was aggressive in his responses. Is it a cultural issue, where Japan favors manners over rudeness? Maybe, but a lot of it is simply the language barrier. Someone asked me whether the “flawed” translation I complained about wasn’t deliberate. Maybe. But then, everyone needs to be on the same page regardless of what answer you run with.

You may be right, but it doesn’t matter. About the only decent shot Toyota got off in their defense was when Inaba called into question an experiment by a professor regarding software as a possible cause. He claims the method used though recreates scenarios that make the test flawed, yet all you hear is how senators want to know why Toyota is ignoring software problems with floormat solutions.

That’s what people will be left with after these hearings.

Dealers. While several dealers were called into question regarding how they dismissed early complaints from drivers, no auto brand is immune from issues with the service department and not being able to find a problem. The instances where I’ve had decent service from a given car company are nothing compared to the problems I’ve had with expensive or even unnecessary repairs. Toyota hasn’t cornered that market yet.

And a few thoughts on media coverage...

Twitter was alseep. This may have been the oddest thing, but in a PR crisis, the current Twitter owner’s manual calls for any and all in marketing to use said crisis as a case study in their Powerpoints at the next Whatever Conference 2.0. Yet, there was hardly any chatter during the day on the hearings during the height of things.

MSNBC, meh. C-SPAN is still the way to go for hearing coverage. MSNBC didn’t show any of the names of senators or Toyota execs, instead covering a third of the screen with banners top and bottom and endless news crawl, and the video looked off for some reason.

Your government at work. Speaking of, I hope this is archived at some point, because it really is a case study in how to handle your brand in front of the toughest audience. But, the committee’s website only carries clips of some past hearings. Don’t we have a giant Indiana Jones secret warehouse full of servers somewhere that can sotre this stuff?

Now, I gotta go watch Obama sell healthcare. I’ll get back to ya.

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