Just a short time ago, it was the best of times for Toyota and Tiger Woods; now it is the worst. As global brands at the top of their fields, they both commanded respect and inspired tremendous brand loyalty. Now, battered by highly publicized problems with accelerators, brakes and steering (Tiger in more ways than one) both have entered the painful world of branding rehabilitation.
A bleak house at Toyota
As the world’s largest automaker and the leader in U.S. sales, Toyota has built a car brand as powerful as any on the planet. Their cars get consistently high ratings in crash tests and consumer publications. It sells a wide range of vehicles and is a leader in both fleet mileage and hybrid technology. Toyota’s brand consists of many elements, but at its core most owners would tell you is reliability. People buy Toyotas for dependability first and styling, mileage, and practicality second. There are many similar choices available-Honda and Hyundai in particular-but Toyota leads on the strength of quality.
With this industry leadership comes a great deal of pride, which Toyota personnel from the CEO on down are now swallowing at record rates because of serious problems with stuck accelerators, faulty brakes and shaky steering on its flagship models, the Camry, Prius, and Corolla. These problems would stagger any carmaker, but for Toyota they are banging on the hood of their brand concept and their customers’ brand experience.
If you’re a Toyota owner these days, every little shimmy, hesitation or quicker-than-usual stop has got to generate a little extra anxiety. Instead of enjoying the peace-of-mind of reliable transportation, Toyota owners are busy calling the dealer service department, checking on recalls, and learning how to safely manage their car should it accelerate unexpectedly, or fail to stop properly. These thoughts are not just bad for business, they’re the antithesis of the Toyota brand concept.
Great expectations put on hold
Tiger’s brand problems are far more of a novelty from a business perspective since he is a unique, one-man brand and not a multi-national corporation with 320,000 employees like Toyota. He has complete control of Tiger Woods, Inc. in ways that a corporation never could. And yet for all his discipline and skill on the golf course that have made him one of the best ever to play the game, his recklessness in his personal life has betrayed his image of invincibility and near perfection. Tiger is potentially within one year of tying the greatest golf record of all time, Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major wins, but now that pursuit is in limbo and is sure to be forever linked with his personal difficulties.
An all over twist of messages
So how should a brand contort itself in unprecedented times of crisis? Both Tiger and Toyota have taken actions that signal they understand the magnitude of their failures. Both have made highly publicized apologies, both have suspended business as usual-Toyota shutting down production of the Camry, and Tiger leaving golf and entering rehab. Toyota has focused on fixing 2 million cars in the short term. Tiger is fixing personal issues and putting golf aside.
The matter of response time has been debated with both brands accused of taking too long to respond. For Toyota it’s easy to say they should have stepped up sooner, and while there are inklings of a cover-up attempt, it’s a difficult call right now to say exactly when they should have gone public. Their management team and consultants had to gather a lot of facts and be sure they knew the extent of the problem before coming forward. What looked like a single issue with accelerators grew into others as well. An early announcement might have had Toyota running multiple press conferences and losing even more credibility from repetition.
Tiger’s case is different, in my opinion, because he really only owes an explanation to the people who were directly hurt by his actions. The damage his brand takes publicly hurts him and him alone. I doubt that people in his entourage will lose their jobs, but his endorsement income may never fully recover. Tiger’s brand will never be the same, but a dose of humility and humanity may make him just as compelling a public figure.
God bless us, every one gets a rebate
On the other hand, as long as we’ve seen the full extent of Toyota’s quality problems, and no corporate conspiracies are revealed, their response should be sufficient to get back on the road to recovery. Industry experts are predicting that Toyota will jumpstart sales by offering extended warranties and extra incentives to buy new, safer models, much as GM has done to entice buyers since its swan dive into bankruptcy.
At some point, Tiger will return to hitting the dickens out of golf balls and the news from Toyota will be about their new hybrid or alternative fuel car. Given the memory of the average consumer, our nation’s penchant to forgive our sports heroes for private transgressions, and the likely appearance of new scandals to feed on, I’d give each of these brands about two years to recover. But as each brand’s managers would likely attest, it may seem that long already.