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Toyota Brand Crashes “Quality Was Job One”

February 3rd, 2010

Toyota’s stellar reputation for quality takes a hit.

My brother discovered Toyota quality years ago. He’s a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry. When he recognizes quality he acknowledges it with ownership. He buys the product. He enjoys the benefits of owning high quality stuff.

Other Toyota owners have echoed my brother’s comment, “Buy and Toyota and the only thing you do is put gas in it and change the oil.” It’s a universal feeling based on an excellent track record – until now.

Toyota has acknowledged a safety issue associated with acceleration pedals that stick in the open position. Initially, floor mats were to blame. Later a combination of friction and moisture on a metal bar attached to the pedal was indentified as the culprit. Today, electro magnetic interference may be a possible contributing factor. A new issue has arisen with the brakes on the Toyota Prius. What will tomorrow bring?

Toyota acted by issuing a massive recall and an unprecedented suspension of sales of affected models, some of their most popular. This resulted in plant closures where these vehicles are made. A faulty part creates a safety issue that halts sales and manufacture of some of the most popular selling vehicles of an automaker noted for quality.

This is now a brand issue – a big brand issue. Toyota’s brand is tarnished. The lynchpin of their brand – quality – is now suspect. Everybody makes claims related to quality. Few are warranted. Toyota’s claim to high quality was well earned – proven. That has now changed.

Toyota is making a good faith effort to make it right, but the public relations battle may already be lost. They initially identified one thing as the problem and then another. After issuing the recall, they were silent for a few days while they formulated their plan. Toyota’s silence left dealers without answers and customers confused.

Toyota stock will stake a hit. Their sales will drop. Their brand will suffer. All expected activity. But, if Toyota leaders act responsibly and make everyone affected by this problem whole again, they should be able to come out of this with their reputation intact.

Why? Because of the power of the brand and it’s longstanding claim to quality – proven quality. Even though this series of issues is directly related to quality, or lack thereof, it is isolated to a specific assembly of parts that can be repaired.

More damning is the probable cause. Rapid growth where high quality was sacrificed in favor of high volume distracted Toyota’s commitment to quality. If they acknowledge this publicly, fix the problems, make it right for those affected, they will retain the loyalty of their customers.

It’s rare for a brand that is well known for something – in this instance, quality – to experience such a high profile failure of that very thing. It will take equally rare and deft handling of the “fix” to make it right, while preserving the attribute that bonds loyal followers to its brand.

I’m betting on Toyota, because I understand the loyalty of owner’s like my brother. Once sold on something as important as quality – proven over time – it takes a lot to be unsold. The ball is squarely in Toyota’s court. The way they handle this will impact whether quality will remain the foundation of their reputation, or if ironically, quality will be a casualty of their desire for accelerated growth.

Thoughts … On Brand

Neither deep nor finely crafted. Feel free to take exception – or not. Need help? Just ask.

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