So Toyota has replaced Audi as America’s official sudden-acceleration automaker.
Interestingly, this 2004 USA Today report foreshadowed the Japanese carmaker’s current crisis:
[The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] is investigating the electronic throttle control system in more than 1 million 2002-03 Toyota Camrys, Solaras and Lexus ES 300s. It has narrowed the probe to 11 complaints of engine surge, five that involved crashes.
Flash-forward to today, and Toyota has finally shifted into Defcon 1, promising to fix sticky gas pedals in millions of its vehicles, as the New York Times noted.
The recall for accelerator pedals affects 4.1 million cars worldwide. Toyota has also recalled an additional 5.4 million cars in the United States whose accelerator pedals could get stuck on floor mats. Some models are included in both recalls.
And, after an entire week of blistering publicity, the Japanese car company has decided to face the public, starting with this newspaper ad.
The body copy of the ad says, in part:
And we’ve temporarily halted production at some of our North American plants to focus on the vehicles we’ve recalled. Why have we taken this unprecedented action? Because it’s the right thing to do for our customers.
It’s also the smart thing to do for Toyota’s brand image, albeit a day late.
Newspaper ads aside, this has been a major brand freeze for Toyota, as innumerable news reports have noted (here’s a representative sample from Automotive News):
Toyota’s self-inflicted and spiraling quality crisis has put the company’s entire U.S. operation at risk.
The juggernaut that doubled its market share in the past decade is engulfed in scandal after last week’s suspension of sales of eight models linked to potentially deadly unintended acceleration.
If the media firestorm — and an imminent grilling of executives on Capitol Hill — suggest that Toyota minimized the problem and delayed effective repairs while people died in car crashes, it could cripple America’s top-selling brand. Years of relentless growth could be reversed in a flash.
It will be interesting to see if brand loyalty carries Toyota through this public relations fiasco.
It did for Jet Blue, which in 2007 faced a similar PR crisis: A Valentine’s Day ice storm paralyzed the East Coast and triggered a Chernobylesque meltdown at the discount airline.
But savvy damage control helped Jet Blue retain customer loyalty.
Toyota should be so lucky. It certainly is not so savvy.