Toyota has announced a shockingly comprehensive response to relatively limited reports of a sticky gas pedal: it has suspended production and sales of nine models and recalled millions to replace the potentially offending part. Comparisons have been made to Johnson & Johnson's famous and much lauded reaction to its Tylenol product tampering crisis in the early 90s.
I don't think anybody is going to write a textbook entry on Toyota's actions, however. And it's too bad: as the President's chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel said last year, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
This event is likely Toyota's biggest branding moment in recent memory, and what is it telling customers, renters, dealers, vendors, and employees? Nothing, or not much as far as I can tell. We've heard from just about everyone else -- politicians posturing for hearings in the newspaper, and I received an email from Avis reassuring me that it wouldn't let any of those risky Toyota vehicles imperil my next rental experience -- but the company has let dribble only the occasional cautious and brief statement, and usually in response to the continuing (and widening) news coverage of the problem. The it's-not-our-fault declarations of its pedal supplier has been a stark and damning contrast.
I can just imagine Toyota's legal team cautioning against bold, proactive announcements, and that such a seemingly sensible avoidance strategy would play into the company’s Japanese reticence, but shame on the leadership and communications team for not stepping up and doing their jobs.
Effectively shutting the company down without a commensurately huge ramp up in talking to the world is just plain mismanagement. It renders every one of Toyota's nonsense branding ads and social media stunts little more than reminders of that other thing that we now worry about; context matters, and ignoring it verges on the dysfunctional, which only further substantiates the possibility that there's something terribly wrong with Toyota.
The good news is that this could change tomorrow: the company could embrace the dramatic scope of its production halt and recall and go after the marketplace, telling its customers what's going on and empowering its dealers and employees to do the same. It could be honest and direct and void of all the blather that normally confuses its communications, making it perhaps not the last PR strategy but its first business communications strategy (i.e. communicating business reality and not the pretenses of branding hype). It could be a wonderful opportunity to deliver the proof behind a brand message of continuous improvement, responsibility, and leadership.
Again, it would be harder to do than the glib marketing nonsense it normally favors, but I believe it would do wonders for strengthening Toyota's reputation. Maybe that's still the plan, though I think it's far more likely that the avoidance strategy will continue. I fear that Toyota’s leadership is asleep at the wheel, and that the damage to its brand is not only partially self-inflicted but wholly well-deserved.