Case Study: The Cult of Toyota

Even After Recalls and Hearings, the Brand Has Die-Hard Loyalists — and It’s Working Overtime to Keep Them notes: Toyota might be telling Capitol Hill it wants to regain the public trust, but judging from Facebook, it may not have lost it.

According to Doug Frisbie, Toyota Motor Sales USA’s national social media and marketing integration manager, the automaker has actually grown its Facebook fan base more than 10% since late January, around the time of the marketer’s Jan. 21 recall announcement and its Jan. 26 stop-sale date.

In fact, Mr. Frisbie said the automaker has been somewhat surprised by the large number of customers who have leapt to Toyota’s defense in “an authentic way.”

That’s a testament to the resilience of the brand, but also to Toyota’s ability to quickly pick up one of the most important tools in a crisis-communications handbook: social media.

The marketer has been faulted for communicating too little and too late in traditional media, but it’s gone all out when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social-media channels. Prior to the recall, Toyota didn’t have a reputation as an aggressive social-media adopter, yet it’s managed to increase the number of fans on its main Facebook presence (from 71,600 to 79,500) over the past five weeks and, starting Jan. 21, it became a far more active user on Twitter. On Feb. 22 alone, it tweeted 34 messages (by contrast, Honda has more than 300,000 Facebook fans).

Response team
Toyota’s been able to be so aggressive in social media largely because around Feb. 1 it created a social-media response room, always staffed with six to eight people monitoring the online conversation and responding at all times. It’s answering consumers on its four Facebook pages; it created a Twitter chat with Jim Lentz, Toyota Motor Sales USA president-chief operating officer; and it created two new platforms, one with Digg and the other on Tweetmeme called “Toyota Conversations” to aggregate online chatter and allow Toyota to respond directly. Mr. Frisbie said the Digg dialogue attracted nearly 1 million views in its first five days after launching Feb. 8.

Moreover, Toyota has approached online brand loyalists and asked if it could repost their tweets, blog posts and videos on its platforms. “We have proactively reached out to those creating some higher-volume conversations online,” he said. “We are creating a series of video interviews with customers, associates at our plants and some dealership personnel to tell those stories proactively on our YouTube channel and other outlets. They provide that frontline perspective and an authentic response to some of the issues we are facing right now.”

Those loyalists may get harder for Toyota to hang on to, as headlines have emerged suggesting Toyota covered up its flaws. Loyalists may also disappear as they realize the resale value of their vehicles has gone down — or get a letter asking them to join a class-action lawsuit, said Sally Hogshead, author of “Fascinate.” “How loyal will Toyota fans be, once they receive a letter announcing: ‘You are entitled to [x-dollars] from Toyota’? How much is their devotion worth, exactly? Will they reject compensation from the auto manufacturer?”

SOCIAL SKILLS: Toyota has boosted Facebook fans and created 'Toyota Conversations' to aggregate and respond to chatter.
SOCIAL SKILLS: Toyota has boosted Facebook fans and created ‘Toyota Conversations’ to aggregate and respond to chatter.

Mr. Frisbie recalls seeing the first tweets about the automaker’s unintended acceleration issue toward the end of 2009, when Toyota recalled more than 4 million cars to fix and replace accelerator pedals. “The minute news hits the wires, it becomes a conversation,” Mr. Frisbie said. “It’s just a question of how high [the] volume [of] that conversation will become.”

It didn’t take long for Toyota to figure that out. According to Radian6, on Jan. 22, the day after the recall, buzz within the social web skyrocketed, with the number of posts about the automaker going from less than 100 to over 3,200. With the stop-sale announcement four days later, online chatter shot from about 500 posts that morning to more than 3,000 by that afternoon.

Social media critical
“Just by virtue of the volume of conversation you see out there online, [social media] is probably the most important [crisis-communication] element in many cases,” said Mr. Frisbie. “How you respond and react to those [social-media] conversations really has become perhaps the most important platform for dealing with a crisis like this.”

Mr. Frisbie said his team’s priority is to listen to how customers are responding to the hearings and other news. “That’s the primary tenet of good social-media strategy — listen,” he said. “There’s been a wide range of concerns given the coverage this has received, so we’re just trying to address all of them across all our platforms.”

The car maker obviously can’t control what people say about it on blogs or Twitter, and to its credit Toyota is letting the naysayers take their swipes on its own platforms like Facebook. Asked if he thought Toyota’s own platforms provided a better outlet to steer the conversation, Mr. Frisbie said the company isn’t trying to control it or even get its story out there.

“We’re just trying to provide relevant information,” he said. “We’re not trying to guide it or steer it in one way or another; we’re just trying to answer questions our customers may have. Rather than it being our side, it’s our customer’s point of view. Look at any sort of research study, and endorsements from friends and family is always one of the primary drivers of purchase, so that’s a huge opportunity area.”

And Mr. Frisbie believes opportunity will spring from this crisis. “We certainly have learned a ton, and those learnings, like creating a social-media-response team and opening multiple platforms where we can communicate directly with customers, will be part of our strategy going forward. And, eventually, those things will give us an advantage.