Toyota hits top gear

The automaker has regained its spot as the world's leading car-selling company. PRWeek takes an in-depth look at how transparent comms and social media efforts helped steer the company back to first place.

The automaker has regained its spot as the world's leading car-selling company. PRWeek takes an in-depth look at how transparent comms and social media efforts helped steer the company back to first place.


Toyota Motor Company reclaimed the top spot as the world's number one car-selling company in 2012. On the road back to first place, the automaker overcame its first annual net loss in 60 years in 2009 and damage to its production plants in Japan after the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake.

Now firmly out in front, the company plans to build on that success by becoming a better storyteller and it wants to bring customers along for the ride.

In fall 2012, Toyota launched its new campaign, Let's Go Places, which demonstrates how the brand is moving forward, says Jack Hollis, VP of marketing.  

“The new campaign is really evolving the message to talk about everyone,” he adds. “There's a new energy and excitement, and the ‘places' are both figurative and literal.”

Prior to this initiative, Toyota's tagline since 2004 was Moving Forward and Hollis says the campaign was more corporate centric than consumer focused. He adds that while the company is starting off strong in 2013 with its number one position in sales, it also wants to be in the top spot for relationships.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe we have to get away from words such as consumer and customer,” he asserts. “We're evolving and the message needs to talk to guests. And when you talk to guests, you talk to them differently than consumers.” 

The Lexus brand displayed a new model at CES and attracted a substantial amount of press.

Leading up to its Super Bowl commercial in February, Toyota asked fans to get involved by posting photos of themselves on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #wishgranted for the chance to be featured in the spot. Hollis says this type of engagement and participation is going to be a consistent theme for the campaign as it grows throughout the year.

Each month, Toyota will launch guest-facing events or challenges tied into the initiative, such as asking fans to submit what Let's Go Places means to them.

The company's efforts to involve consumers are commended by Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at website Edmunds.com, an online resource for automotive information. “Before, they were known as a serious, quality company, but not as much on the fun side,” she explains. “They are trying to do things a bit differently and putting more emotion into not only their products, but also some of their communications.”

While Toyota has been very active in traditional and social media in the last few months, Caldwell says a significant challenge in the near future will be competition in creating vehicles. 

“Every automaker has really improved in quality,” she observes. “Looking at brands such as Hyundai, Kia, Ford, and Chevrolet, the quality for a lot of these cars is pretty much on par these days. That is tough for Toyota because that is what it was known for.” 

Compelling stories
Julie Hamp, who joined Toyota as CCO for North America in June 2012, says the automaker is in an exciting period where it's focused on telling great stories, launching nine new products, and engaging consumers.
In terms of communications, Hamp and her team are concentrating on three major areas going forward; storytelling, thought leadership, and field communications.

The objective for telling stories, she notes, is to communicate with consumers across various channels and for Toyota to take on “more of a media company view” in how it reaches people. She adds the automaker will also work to engage employees within its organization, such as customer relations associates or the philanthropy team, to help engage people about the Toyota brand and its line of automobiles.

“People closest to the work are the ones who have the best stories,” she explains.

Expanding its thought leadership to stretch beyond some of the traditional automotive platforms, such as auto shows and press launches, is another key initiative for Toyota. The company wants to enter areas where opinion leaders gather, Hamp says, including events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Conference.

In January, Toyota attended the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, where it showcased its Lexus Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle. The brand garnered more awareness from CES than it did with two announcements at the Detroit Auto Show, adds Hamp. More than 450 members of the media attended its press conference, accumulating 600 million media impressions, with hits in The New York Times, Business Insider, Canada's CBC News, and more.

Toyota also showed off its “visionary technology,” which is an aspect of the company that many consumers are not aware of, Hamp explains.

Bolstering communications
The third part of its plan going forward is to strengthen field communications, allowing Toyota to have more of a local presence. Hamp says the automaker is very efficient with national media launches and works with about 20 agencies including GolinHarris, which handles corporate efforts, motor sports, and product communications. However, the company wants to bring that efficiency to local communities, which is why it is working with Shift Communications in the Northeast US, Allison+Partners in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and Jackson Spalding in the Southeast US.

Agency partners have been working with Toyota to develop fresh ideas and “out-of-the-box strategies,” Hamp explains. For instance, in February, the company launched its first regional Ride & Drive event, reaching out to local media beyond the automotive industry.

Shift unveiled a new concept for the 2013 Boston Auto Show, which took place in January, inviting bloggers to the event and having them drive away in a RAV4 so they could blog about it. Blogger engagement garnered a 52% increase in share of voice year over year, says Hamp.

In addition to enhancing regional communications, Toyota will work on connecting consumers with its network of 1,200 independent dealers across the US, says Dave Nordstrom, VP of digital marketing and social media.

“Buying a car is often a complicated and emotional decision,” he adds, “so we want to help customers build relationships with dealers, making the process more fun.

“Toyota worked very hard over the last year to make sure all our marketing is very integrated,” he notes, “so our customers get a seamless experience from us, the manufacturer, the ad agencies that support our dealer groups, down to the dealer level.” 

In the next six months, Toyota will focus on creating tools to make it easier for consumers to build relationships with dealers, similar to how the company launched a tablet app in February to help people connect with Toyota and its vehicles.

Another large part of this effort is to continue connecting consumers with technology, which will aid them in the next phase of their shopping process, says Nordstrom.

“Close to 80% of the people that go to a Toyota dealer or shop come to our digital environment,” he adds. “It's a critical piece of our marketing, especially with the number of people going mobile.” Toyota often does “reverse engineering” with its digital work, starting with the mobile aspects and then handling the desktop elements.

Regardless of where the data is posted, Nordstrom says that Toyota wants to ensure messaging remains the same across all digital and social platforms so consumers get the same experience wherever they visit. That means addressing the challenge of keeping up with the speed of change in the digital and social world, while figuring out what platforms will benefit consumers the most.

Social hub
To help handle the fast-paced atmosphere, Toyota's PR team recently launched a Buzz Bureau in partnership with its marketing and customer relations units, says Hamp. The social media hub allows staffers to reach consumers in an authentic way by being part of conversations that are already happening in the social space.

“It's a new initiative that's exciting for the company,” she explains. “It will allow marketing to sit side by side with PR and customer relations in order to really triage social media, whether it's a crisis situation or just knowing what's happening in the news.”

Toyota's Buzz Bureau is just one example of how the internal teams work together. Hollis says the PR and marketing teams have a great working relationship with one another and with dealerships, allowing them to create and tell stories that work in the social media chain.

“We are integrating more and more toward a converged communications model,” he adds. “It's about trying to equalize all of them and leverage all three pieces, earned, owned, and shared, as well as paid.” 
–Lindsay Stein

Toyota's American pride

While Toyota is a Japanese multinational company, it still has a lot of American pride and will continue to tell US-centric stories.

In October 2012, the automaker launched an initiative in partnership with Martha Stewart's American Made program, which supports US brands. For the campaign, Toyota was promoting its Avalon, a vehicle that was “100% made in the US, from design to development to engineering to supplying to manufacturing,” says Jack Hollis, VP of marketing.

The effort, which included videos of Stewart visiting the Toyota factory in Georgetown, KY, and an on-site activation at Grand Central Terminal in New York, was picked up by national media, including Piers Morgan Tonight, and created a lot of social media buzz on Twitter and YouTube, Hollis says. He adds that the initiative was widely integrated across paid, earned, owned, and shared media.

Going forward, Toyota will continue to tell its American story, especially throughout this year, explains Hollis.

“We have a great story,” he says. “We're not bringing jobs back – we are just adding jobs because when we went through the whole recession and the tsunami, we did not lay off any of our full-time employees.” Throughout the rest of 2013 and going into 2014, Hollis says the company will create 2,000 new jobs at its Mississippi plant, where it will produce the new Corolla model.

Lexus' audience, brand evolve
Lexus credits a 23.3% bump in unit sales in the US last year to a redesign of its flagship LS sedan, new features in many of its models, and its new LS 460 F Sport.

“We're coming up on 24 years in the US,” says Brian Smith, Lexus VP of marketing. “And while we have built this great reputation, the brand evolves and it is time to continue to raise the bar.”

The company has focused its messaging on alterations, as well as a more personalized driving experience via its drive-select mode in some of its cars. For instance, in its CT Hybrid, if a consumer wants a more aggressive drive, they can switch to sport mode and the hybrid power- monitor gauge is replaced with a tachometer. Steering is also tightened, battery power is increased, and the traction and stability systems are made less intrusive.

Lexus created a unique event for media members for the launch of its new IS model.

Not only is the brand revamping products, it is also evolving its target audience. Reaching out to new customers is important, as after an 11-year run as the number one selling luxury brand in the US, Lexus slipped behind competitors BMW and Mercedes-Benz last year. The company has increased its focus on a younger, more ethnically diverse audience and women. For some models, the average age has dropped to the early 40s, giving the company one of the youngest demographics driving a luxury brand.

“Data suggests people have more spending power earlier in their careers,” says Smith. “This is partly due to people living in their parents' homes longer and their desire for more luxury products.”

Attracting new consumers
In an effort to woo younger drivers, the company had about 25 tech, lifestyle, and gadget bloggers flown into Las Vegas to preview its first Super Bowl commercial in February 2012. The bloggers got to preview the commercial, speak to auto experts, and test drive the GS. The event resulted in 14.4 million media impressions.

“It wasn't just a PR message,” says Smith. “It was about experiencing the new design and driving dynamics. That kind of thing is much better at reaching a younger demographic than a big national TV campaign.”

The company held a similar event this March in which it brought journalists and bloggers from around the world to “a top secret location in Texas” to test drive the new Lexus IS, which is not available to buy until June.

In February, the company was in the planning stages of IS Ride & Drive, a consumer event expected to expand to at least 10 cities. Members of the media will be invited to the events so they can talk to customers about their experience with the vehicles.

Different driving models have been added to the CT Hybrid.

Product launch promotions are now based 50% on social media and events, with the other 50% still consisting of ad buys and more traditional PR outreach.

The promotional holy grail for companies continues to be the mega conferences, including the Detroit Auto Show. But with so much competition for attention at the events, Lexus finds ways to stand out. While most car companies do press announcements or an unveiling in their display space on the trade-show floor, Lexus uses ballrooms and creates a unique event, says Smith. The extra space allows for more creative reveals with more mobility options to show what the car can do.

“If people are going to see 15 announcements or reveals of products in a day,” he adds, “they are going to remember walking into a neat place and seeing something unexpected. That's how you separate yourself.”

At the 2013 Detroit show, Lexus became the first auto company to use Facebook's news feed to broadcast the live reveal. One hundred thousand viewers tuned in and 800,000 watched the YouTube video of the event after the company posted it on the site within 24 hours.

Lexus is also using events such as the Consumer Electronics Show to slowly unveil progress on semi-autonomous technologies via videos.
Virgil Dickson

Social ushers in the age of Scion
Toyota's Scion brand, the youngest of the automaker's offspring, is coming of age.

The name Scion means “descendant” and the brand has always targeted a younger generation through more affordable pricing and less conventional communications methods, such as social media and viral marketing campaigns. In one early effort, Scion held a month-long art exhibit in San Francisco showcasing work by up-and-coming artists.

Since its launch in 2003, the Scion line has grown from three vehicles to five. Sales increased 38.4% in January compared with the same month the previous year. As the brand matures, it is attempting to maintain a youthful appeal while still reaching a wider audience, says Doug Murtha, VP of the Scion division for Toyota Motor Sales. As a result, Scion has begun evolving its communications strategy to include more mainstream outlets, such as print, TV, and radio.

Scion is the youngest brand in Toyota's fleet of autos.

“The downside of being underground is that our image was sometimes crafted by folks without much of our input because only a targeted group was seeing communications from us,” Murtha says. “As we were coming up on 10 years in the market, we looked at our brand awareness among the 18- to 35-year-old buyer group and found it was lower than we wanted it to be. We decided to reallocate a bit more of our funding to above-ground media to drive better awareness and a little more influence over our brand image.”

“A lot of our buyers require co-signers,” he adds. “We also need those people to be aware of us.”

National spotlight
While Scion might be stepping more into the national spotlight, it is still one of Toyota's lesser-known brands and must work to stand out in the vast automotive market, Murtha explains. Recently, Scion began incorporating LED screens and video in displays at auto shows, as well as reaching out to press farther in advance of those events in order to maximize press coverage.

“We're a relatively small player and we know that,” Murtha says, adding that early engagement is key to helping Scion “get on the map before the rush of information” at national events.

The brand's outreach has also shifted from a core demographic of 22-year-olds to a slightly older crowd with an average age of 26. That subtle adjustment followed discussions with some customers who felt the brand was too young, Murtha explains.

A key example of Scion's evolving communications strategy is its Motivate campaign, which targeted 25- to 26-year-old consumers at the start of their careers.

The Motivate campaign was part of an overall effort to target young customers.

Innovative strategies
The program, which kicked off last October, invited young entrepreneurs in creative fields to enter for a chance to win a six-month business mentorship, $10,000, and a Scion vehicle. The brand invited 50 semi-finalists to Los Angeles, where the budding business owners could attend seminars and network with potential mentors. Scion then selected 10 grand prize winners, as well as a number of runners-up.

“As we studied the current Gen Y buyers,” Murtha notes, “we found there is this interest in connecting their personal passions to what they do with their careers in a bigger way than in past generations.”

Though the multimillion-dollar PR effort included media outreach to national print, broadcast, and online outlets, Scion also stayed true to its social and viral media roots. The campaign included vital social and digital components, such as the requirement that applicants submit 60-second videos about their career goals. Scion shared videos from the business conference on its social media channels and has continued to follow the entrpreneurs' progress and share their stories online.

The brand has supported artists, filmmakers, musicians, and others in creative fields for as long as it has been in existence, but the follow-up to the Motivate effort demonstrates the brand's commitment to growing with its customers. An upcoming advertising campaign will feature a film director the brand worked with 10 years ago, Murtha says. In all of its social media efforts, which span Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, Scion looks to create lasting connections with fans.

“You must ask how social media will help foster a relationship,” Murtha adds. “We have an ongoing relationship with these folks who are just getting started.”
Brittaney Kiefer

Trustworthy comms drives engagement as brand connects staff
Staying connected with employees at a company as vast as Toyota is no simple feat. In North America alone, the automaker employs 37,000 people. It has 14 assembly plants in the region and about 1,500 dealerships in the US. The company's philosophy is to communicate with staff first, says North America CCO Julie Hamp, and it uses a mix of digital channels and personal interactions to keep its associates and dealers in the know.

Toyota's communications team coordinates employee engagement initiatives with its HR department. The most difficult part of reaching such a massive number of staffers is customizing company messages to make them personal to everyone, Hamp explains. A team member at a Kentucky plant likely has different concerns than the associate working in a call center, so that's why Toyota's internal communications must re-main versatile, she adds.

“Communications is becoming more fragmented, but opportunity lies in using new channels to reach employees,” Hamp says. “Customized communications means leaders need to be responsible for understanding the context of information and putting it into relevant terms for the group they oversee.”

A cornerstone of Toyota's staff engagement strategy is its Chatter platform, an internal social network. Chatter is similar to an online mess-age board, where employees can see a stream of activity upon logging in and join subgroups that interest them. For example, there is a food, fitness, and fun channel for staffers to swap fitness tips or invite others to join exercise activities. Toyota US CEO Jim Lentz started Chatter and still uses it regularly to stay in touch with his employees, Hamp explains.

Toyota is also launching a new intranet this month called Toyota Connect that will include a multimedia news component, a feature that had previously been lacking on the company's internal site. Toyota Connect will be a “one stop shop” for employees to catch up on news, find company information, respond to polls, watch video Q&As with Lentz, and chat with key executives, Hamp says. “It's bringing real-time communications to our intranet for the first time,” she adds.

Executives often meet with staffers to identify concerns.

Yet even as Toyota's employee communications goes more digital, the company has not forgotten the importance of face-to-face contact. On a regular basis, top executives walk around Toyota's North American headquarters in Torrance, CA, to meet and speak with employees. Executives also regularly hold roundtable discussions with a cross section of associates.

Respecting employees
These sessions are a chance for company leaders to listen to employees, address concerns, and share business updates from around the world, Hamp explains.

“These more informal, less structured events really matter,” she says. “It makes a difference and people open up. They're not shy and are happy to share concerns, but more than that, they're glad to be asked.”

Employees “see and hear it first” at Toyota, adds Hamp. In 2012, the brand rebounded from a tumultuous few years in which it faced a recall scandal, a battered supply chain following the 2011 Japan tsunami, and its largest sales loss ever. About two years ago, in the midst of that period, Toyota began sending out mass emails to associates and dealers with breaking news about the brand.

Dubbed Fast Facts, the emails ensure employees learn first about big events. The brand encourages them to share messages with family and friends. If a crisis arises, Toyota also calls or sends out text messages to staffers.

The brand has since recovered from those crises, re-gaining the global sales lead over General Motors and Volkswagen in 2012. This year, Toyota will launch nine new products. Since last October, it has held quarterly atrium meetings, similar to town halls, where the carmaker gives employees a sneak peek of the new products. Though it asks staff not to take photos or communicate about the products, revealing confidential information is a risky strategy, Hamp says.

Still, employees “respect that trust, as they're given the privilege of seeing it firsthand,” she adds. Going to staffers first, during good times and bad, is how Toyota hopes to continue building trust within the company.

“Our employees are the most credible voice to their friends, family, and our customers,” says Hamp.
Brittaney Kiefer

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