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Eiji Toyoda and Brand Leadership

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With the recent passing of Eiji Toyoda, it’s a good moment to look at a man who re-invented the Toyota brand. While he didn’t found the company (a cousin did), Eiji Toyoda took the Toyota brand from a low-budget also-ran to a global powerhouse. How? By focusing on systems and how to make them better. And by letting the people inside the company help him do it.

Toyoda created a process of labeling assembly line parts–a precursor to the bar code–that made Toyota plants  the model of efficiency. He also promoted “Kaizen”– a process of continuous improvement that, at least in his version of it, relied on the company’s own workers as the source of the best ideas to constantly improve quality and efficiency.  Toyoda understood that what would distinguish his family’s cars from other cars was to deliver quality for a price-point that worked for American customers –the ultimate Toyota target market. Today, it’s hard to imagine someone not knowing the name of the company that has brought us the Lexus, the Prius and the Camry.  

But when organizations talk about re-inventing their brand, they often think first about logos, websites, social media campaigns and marketing slogans. These are essential tools, don’t get me wrong. What’s often missing from the recipe for a better brand is, well, a better brand.  Toyoda’s secret ingredient was to focus on how people and processes delivered cheaper, better cars.  Translated for nonprofits, that means delivering on the mission in a way that is more consistent, with more impact.   Communicating about that terrific quality and impact is actually the last step in the process.

Can Toyota’s Brand Recover?

Take the Short Poll at the End of this Post!

On February 1st Toyota announced its now-famous recall of eight models of 2005-2010 cars and trucks and stopped its production lines due to an accelerator pedal issue .  It had signalled the recall days earlier, in an announcement on January 21st.  By this Friday, February 5th, according to Toyota all dealers will have special parts to solve the issue and will handle free replacements.

Did Toyota react fast enough to save its name?

Some say no. Toyota should have known of the problem earlier, due to reports of acceleration-related accidents recorded by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) as early as 2002.  After four people in a Lexus were killed when their car accelerated into an intersection and hit an SUV last August, Toyota had already received more than 2,000 complaints of similar issues.   Toyota could have “connected the dots”  sooner, and saved lives and perhaps its stake in the auto market for years to come.  On the other hand, their fast response once they did issue the recall, and their ability to reach out to customers and the press through multiple channels–television, press conferences, social media and their own website–has helped the company’s image.  Crisis communications experts always cite the Tylenol poisoning case of 1982, when manufacturer Johnson & Johnson recalled more than 20 million bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol, destroyed them all, and developed new tamper-resistant packaging, and then communicated all of these steps to the public, early and often.

What can other brands learn from Toyota?

  1. Not Listening to Your Customers Can Kill Your Brand.
  2. Not Working with Others Who Serve Your Customer (i.e. NHSTA) Hurts Your Brand.
  3. Developing a Solution-Oriented Response Helps.
  4. Communicate Everything, Early, Often.
  5. If You Don’t Already Have Multiple Channels for Reaching Your Customer and Decision-Influencers (the press, experts), Put Them in Place Now!