Prius Goes Plural (new models) and Sparks a Social Conversation About Them

Mashable notes: Want to get a social media conversation going? Then create a false controversy.

That’s the approach Toyota has taken for its new Prius line. To get the word out in social media circles, the automaker could have talked about the Prius V’s 50% increased trunk space or emphasized the line’s green credentials. Instead, the campaign focused on a grammatical debate over the plural of “Prius.”

The idea came about because there will now be a few different Prius models on the road, but it’s also an acknowledgment that after 10 years, most people know only basic facts about the Prius. “We really wanted to tap into the passion and enthusiasm of Prius owners,” says Kimberley Gardiner, national digital, marketing and social media manager for Toyota, who adds that the debate over the correct plural of Prius (Latin for “first”) is actually a topic that has come up among such owners.

To stoke the debate, Toyota and agency Saatchi & Saatchi released a web video yesterday that features a droll children’s song musing on the illogical forms of the plural in English. “There’s octopus to octopi, spiky cactus to cacti then how come when we multiply, platypus doesn’t become platypi?”

Other outreach includes a Facebook page where consumers can vote on their preferred plural (including “Prii,” “Prien” and “Prium”) and a “Prius goes Plural” promoted trend on TwitterTwitterTwitter.

All this for a car that won’t hit showrooms for at least six months.

But Gardiner says that six months is about the time that consumers need to make their decision on a new car purchase. Social media, it turns out, can help that decision-making process. “It’s very reasonable, in fact it’s expected for [consumers] to have some early information about what’s coming out,” says Gardiner. “They don’t just want information, they want to know what their friends are saying.”

It’s a measure of Toyota’s confidence that it’s able to build a campaign around such a silly premise. A year ago, the company was grappling with product recalls that severely tarnished its stellar brand image. Time and the deft use of social media helped Toyota rebuild its image somewhat, but Ted Marzilli, senior vice president and global managing director of YouGov’s BrandIndex, says that Toyota’s buzz score before the recalls was 27, meaning that, averaging fans (+100) and detractors (-100), the brand had a fairly positive image. But after the recalls, the buzz score slipped to -55 and is now at 13, Marzilli says. (The BrandIndex is tabulated by polling 5,000 consumers a day online.) “They’ve come a long way back,” says Marzilli, “but since October of this year, their score has sort of flattened out.”

A campaign focused on a trivial topic is a good way to change the subject, especially given Toyota’s newfound appreciation for social media. It’s significant that Gardiner’s position is a new one. She also expects future Toyota campaigns — the next one is for Camry — to lean heavily on social media. “One thing we’ve learned is that you have to be open and have more transparency,” says Gardiner.

And by the way, Gardiner says the preferred plural of Prius in-house is “Priuses.”