Heard any good stories lately?

While our customers knew and trusted our cars, they didn't really know us as a company. Put another way, they didn't know our story.

As I wrote in my blog on Monday, Toyota launched a holistic company reputation effort in North America in 2012. While our customers knew and trusted our cars, they didn't really know us as a company. Put another way, they didn't know our story.

The first part of this company-wide effort was establishing messaging to help all of us at Toyota speak the same language when talking about our company. But, we knew it would take more than facts and figures to bring these messages to life. One of our executives learned this lesson in practice. Troubled that so many people knew little about the scope of Toyota's investment in America, he started carrying a card in his wallet listing key information about our US presence. And, whenever possible, he would get out his card and share each fact.

As you might expect, this didn't go over very well. That's because data points are not the same as emotive storytelling. Or, put another way, harkening back to a familiar Biblical tale: the flood is the news, but Noah is the story!

For us, good storytelling isn't about touting words like “innovation.” It's describing the redesign of our Sienna, when one of our engineers decided to take the vehicle on an epic cross-country journey from the Arctic Circle to Death Valley, across Canada and Mexico, to figure out just how the minivan could be improved. The result: a tighter turning radius, all-wheel-drive, and roll-up sunshades for the second- and third-row side windows.

Human beings are hard-wired, it seems, to create narratives around events as a way to connect emotionally to the life around them. And storytelling exists at the heart of so much in our lives today. Who watches the Olympics without wanting to get “up close and personal” with the athletes? What viewers remember isn't so much the number of medals each country wins as the human stories of athletic triumph and adversity overcome.

Business — long considered a realm of balance sheets and income statements — is relatively new to the world of stories. But think of how storytelling can help enhance reputation. When things go wrong for a company, word soon gets around and the comments fly on social media. If advocates have an authentic story to tell, they are better equipped and motivated to come forcefully to a company's defense.

We've found that our stories have started to bring Toyota to life in ways that our friends, customers, and potential advocates have never before experienced. Just as exciting, these stories have also started to drive new partnerships, both with internal and external collaborators. As a vital part of this effort, we created a central storybook so our colleagues across the country could share the great stories about the work they're doing and the role Toyota is playing in communities across the country. That helps everyone from senior executives to plant team members to think of themselves as Toyota “reputation ambassadors,” whether they're making a speech to hundreds at a conference or chatting with neighbors at a backyard BBQ. 

What we've come to appreciate through all of this is a simple truth: Toyota is in the business of building and selling great cars and trucks, but our company is made of great stories of people doing great things for customers and consumers.

Julie Hamp is CCO at Toyota Motor North America.

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