Sayonara, So Long, Goodbye!

Mar 17, 2010
by Vanessa Horwell

Reprinted from

A short take on how one company killed America’s love affair and its decades-long quest to be the best car brand – in just a few short months. Business is business is business. Except that the way companies do business in every country can be vastly different. Yes, even in our “global” marketplace.

Cultural nuances and traditions have a direct impact on management and leadership styles, affecting workforce attitudes and performance, from the top down and bottom up. Toyota’s spectacular fall from grace puts the spotlight on how a number of Japanese cultural traits — things like gokuhi, uchi-soto, gaijin — helped propel its PR nightmare. In English, these terms roughly translate to secrecy, suspicion of foreignness, pride and insecurity — none of which are particularly PR friendly or conducive to reputation-building, nor endearing to a nation consumed by transparency and openness.

Our way is not always the right way
One of the first things a marketer is supposed to learn is to know thy customer. Barring its first American flop in 1958, Toyota seemed to know its customers very well. The company pioneered just-in-time manufacturing, became the darling of the auto industry, and was embraced by American consumers wholeheartedly. At the same time, Toyota’s reserve and intense pride seemed to reinforce the image (correctly or not) of the Japanese — always striving for perfection – which up until a few years ago served the carmaker very well.

But alas, that pride — and arrogance I would add — is what finally got in the way of Toyota understanding its customers. In an era where customers control so much of the conversation, Toyota forgot the golden rule of know thy customers.

In Japan, where something negative or dishonorable can be met with terminal consequences, a policy of hush and secrecy might be advisable. In the United States, and other western countries, the exact opposite is true. Putting aside the big question of why the gas pedal problems happened, where were the leadership teams that had taken Toyota to such heights when the news of deaths and recalls leaked into the mainstream? Where were the crisis comms teams when Ray LeHood told Americans not to drive their Toyotas? Why were they so silent? I put it down to cultural differences.

Too little, too late
Catharine Taylor’s outstanding post on “Toyota’s Crisis” discusses the carmaker’s serious failure to address its shortcomings in the public domain, that is, through social media. It would never do so on home turf, so why anywhere else? Toyota’s ignorance of and arrogance as to the power of social media to mobilize, or in this case immobilize its brand, combined with a DNA entrenched with privacy proved to be the final straw.

Which brings us to PR. If social media is PR’s newest chum, brand behemoths must not only understand and engage billions of their customers on a level playing field, they also need to understand that social media or managing media is not the same everywhere, because neither are social norms nor media’s influence. What is acceptable in some parts of the world is intolerable in others — media notwithstanding.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda
Sure, Toyota should have been more vocal. It should have been more responsible. It should have been more responsive. It could have done many things differently. Would the American public have reacted differently had Toyota said sorry sooner?

I don’t think so. It’s not that Toyota didn’t converse with us fast enough (which they didn’t). Just like some of their customers, they would have been slaughtered anyhow. It’s what their words revealed about them, when they finally spoke.

What we learned is that Toyota’s business and management values come from a different place and time, a place where social media and PR have a different voice. It is a culture that is controlled, controlling and private.

So regardless of Toyota’s efforts to speak our language now — we can talk about what are the best PR and social media strategies going forward until we are blue in the face — nothing much will change unless the (transparent) effort comes from the top down.

They can bring in the best PR teams, they can bring on the best social media “experts” available, but cultural differences might just continue to keep them and us a world apart.

And that’s called brand suicide in any language.

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