As Toyota lays plans for a major incentive and marketing campaign designed to win back buyers, I was intrigued by the headlines coming from Toyota dealers at the National Auto Dealers Association meeting this weekend. In essence, some Toyota dealers believe the media has blown the controversy about unintended acceleration out of perspective. In other words, things aren't as bad as reporters have reported. I found these reports interesting, because it smacked of same thing I heard from Ford dealers during the Explorer/Firestone controversy back in 2000 and from GM and Chrysler dealers last year as those automakers slowly slid toward bankruptcy.
On one hand, I understand where these dealers are coming from. Their livelihoods are being threatened. For the first time ever, they have customers questioning the value, safety, and reliability of models that used to be considered the gold standard. As one Toyota dealer said to me two weeks ago, "It's tough enough answering customer questions, and then they go home and watch news reports filled with more questions than answers."
To counter the questions among potential buyers, Toyota plans to launch a major marketing campaign in March to do whatever is needed to convince the public that Toyota has the safety questions solved. Will it work? To an extent yes. But Toyota will need more than marketing to regain the public trust. It will need more than full page ads and op-ed pieces by executives to convince some people they should take a shot at buying a new Toyota, Lexus, or Scion. More than anything, it will take time to get past this controversy.
For better or worse, many potential buyers will not come back to Toyota until independent third party firms have had a chance to analyze what Toyota is doing and once again endorse the company. In other words, a thumbs up from Consumer Reports or some other outside firm, will be the key to winning back buyer trust. For many people, the appearance of Toyota being slow to recall millions of cars has left a bad taste in their mouth. Yes, Toyota says it moved quickly to recall cars once it determined the exact problem, but that wasn't fast enough for some people. Fact is, it will take time to win over those people again.
Toyota will need its marketing campaign, and the incentives it puts on new cars will definitely help stem the loss of sales. After all, a big enough discount will make many buyers feel better about any doubts they may have. In the end however, Toyota will need much more than incentives and marketing to regain its reputation.
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