Un-Crashing Toyota’s Brand Reputation

Brand disasters happen.

And most of the time, brands recover with time. Toyota’s brand reputation is back as strong as ever. BP, if they can stop shooting themselves in the foot, should do likewise. The problem is that it takes plenty of time.

Mea culpa doesn’t cut it. Your customer does not care how sorry you are. It’s like a six year old crying “I’m sorry” after he threw a football in the house and broke a mirror. Sorry has little to do with it. Who is going to clean up the mess? Who is going to pay for the damage? Who is going to replace the mirror? What is going to be done to ensure footballs no longer fly through the house? No matter what happens, the damage has been done. The mirror stays broken and the six-year-old is going to be viewed with suspicion the next time something breaks.

If you have a brand reputation problem like Toyota, you’ll have to work harder to achieve the same results you had before the problem.
* What processes have you changed?
* Have you changed how you communicate through customers throughout the buying process?
* Have you changed the way you market and the content of your messages?
* Have you invested in exactly how customers were hurt, what their ongoing concerns are, what practical things you can do to address the actual damage and lingering fears?
* What specific programs have you put into place, given the learning from the step above?
* Do you engage in on-going outreach and follow up?

Toyota’s case has some good insight for any business. First they fixed the problem. They shook up management. They investigated exactly what went wrong and changed processes. They added a new focus on safety and created rapid response teams and a new approach to recalls. They directly addressed consumers in chat rooms, on Twitter, etc. They had real people with real roles and titles engage in conversation with people. They were brilliant in not getting defensive or too apologetic. They offered advise and gave information to consumers on programs and showed people where they could get detailed third party information on the braking problem. They listened to consumer concerns and made concrete changes. They did massive advertising and PR. (By contrast, BP just did massive PR and focused on defense and damage control while they let the problem keep spewing). Here is some insight to the Toyota consumer-facing response (http://www.toyota.com/safety/) You will see “I’m sorry” is not part of it. That said, Toyota benefits from having a “loved” brand (see consumer interviews: http://bit.ly/bhgXu8) They still have problems. Consumers imagine problems which sets the whole safety apparatus in motion at great cost (http://pressroom.toyota.com/pr/tms/our-point-of-view-post.aspx?id=2234). Toyota will no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt.

Key take-aways:
* Fix the problem (and know how and who screwed up in the first place)
* Change management and process to make sure this kind of thing can’t happen again
* Add additional customer-facing processes, communications, incentives, etc.
* Be aware that healing takes a lot of time
* No matter what, you have lost some goodwill and the “benefit of the doubt” affect for the foreseeable future, you’ll have to work harder, do better, communicate more; you can’t go back to business as usual. You can’t regain what was lost.