What In The World Is Wrong At Toyota?

How could a company as legendary for quality and value as Toyota have come to such a painful state of affairs? Harvard Business School case studies will someday be written about the recent troubles at Toyota, and no doubt they’ll focus on the complex issues of corporate culture and the challenges associated with maintaining longterm market dominance. But, I strongly doubt that Harvard will ever grasp another key reason for the disastrous downturn in Toyota’s image – an issue that’s been brewing for quite some time.

Put simply, Toyota has won the minds, not the hearts of it’s customers. And the mind is fickle.

For the last 20 years, Toyota products have been squarely targeted at automotive consumers, not drivers. There is a big difference between the two. Consumers buy primarily on the basis of value and reliability while drivers buy for passion. Since the eras of the 1967 2000 GT, twin turbo Supra or the AE86 rear drive Corolla, Toyota has completely surrendered the passion hill in favor of mundane consumer appliances like the Camry and Highlander. There’s no doubt that Toyota makes a dammed fine automobile – but from an enthusiast’s perspective, they aren’t on the radar screen.

Our business requires frequent car trips throughout the northeast. Where a New York-to-Boston run along the Hutchinson and Merritt Parkways in a 2010 V6 Ford Fusion was a memorable drive, the same trip in a Camry was an abominable bore.

The Prius is the closest thing that Toyota currently offers to an enthusiast vehicle, but its target audience is Greenies and Technocrats, not passionate drivers. That’s why you see so many Prius being driven at 10 MPH under the posted speed limit by self-centered “hyper-milers” (can we call them Prius-Pisms?) oblivious to the traffic jam behind their rolling roadblock.

By exclusively targeting the consumer and foregoing the enthusiast mindset, Toyota has staked its entire reputation on reliability, safety and value. When these bedrock principles are challenged, consumers head for the exits with all of the sentimentality that you’d experience when changing dishwashing detergent brands.

Passion on the other hand, is a powerfully sticky stuff. It generates strong loyalty to an object, even if that object is profoundly flawed. Have you ever wondered why people remain so incredibly dedicated to 1960’s Detroit Muscle cars more than 40 years since their extinction? Despite build quality, handling and braking that could best be characterized as “maybe”, it only takes a single 7,000 RPM blast in a 427 solid lifter ’67 Corvette to burn a deep imprint on the soul. It’s why we still lust for the gorgeous lines of a 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda or a `65 GT-350 Shelby Mustang. Were these great cars? In some ways positively yes, but in other ways they were actually quite terrible.

But they lit the pleasure center of the brain, and by doing so created owners who are fanatical and staunch supporters of the brands. Companies like Ferrari, Porsche, Honda (and lately GM, Ford and MoPar) understand this primal connection – and have continued to target the passionate side of the buying equation. Walk around any vehicular event, and you’ll actually see people with the Harley logo, Ford Mustang emblem or Chrysler Pentastar tattooed on their bodies. I don’t recall EVER seeing a Toyota tattoo.

So, Toyota has lived and is now wounded by the cold and purely rational consumer sword. As the media continues to pile on hype and condemnation of the brand, there few people vocally taking up Toyota’s defense. There’s little doubt that Toyota will find a workable remedy to the technical and public relations issues now plaguing it, and eventually they’ll recapture the confidence of consumers. But, had they also worked a little harder to capture the hearts of customers and automotive opinion makers, there might be fewer people enjoying schadenfreude at their current misfortunes.