Toyota's troubles say a great deal about our preoccupations and about how communications work in the postmodern era. But they have little to do with the future of the brand.
In case you live on an island with no Internet, TV, radio or newspaper scraps washed ashore, here are the facts: In September, Toyota issued a recall on four million vehicles in the U.S. for "floor mat entrapment" of its accelerator pedals. In January, the recall expanded to a further 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. and 1.8 million in Europe. U.S. sales and production of eight models were suspended; Toyota said it expected the repairs and lost sales to cost it $2-billion. To compound matters, U.S. authorities announced they were investigating a new defect in the braking systems of the Toyota Prius hybrid model.
If you have visions of your minivan speeding out of control with a terrified group of Girl Guides in the back, I can't reassure you. This is serious. Speed kills.
But it seems that Toyotas aren't the only thing that's going too fast. As if the earthquake in Haiti, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Obama administration's troubles in passing the health-care bill weren't enough, the media have climbed aboard this story with the fervour of street racers out for a Saturday-night ride.
Cars are more than conveyances. They are extensions of our bodies that make us capable of great speed; they nurture and protect us; they speak volumes about who we are. We even personalize them, with some people giving their cars cute names. But they are machines, and like the robot HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the threat that they could run amok terrifies us. We must always control the machines, not the other way around.
Yet, in so much of our lives, we are controlled by faceless devices: the ATM that tells you there is no money in your account, the website that decides your preferences for you, the TV that is hopelessly complex for anyone over 12.
In an age of anxiety, it is natural to become a control freak. That's why Apple computers, iPods and iPhones are so popular: They make devices that are user-friendly - in other words, easy to control.
So when the image of out-of-control Toyotas hurtling down the highways of North America is presented to us in the media, it is just as natural to question whether the Toyota brand can ride this out. Toyota management, it is said, has been slow to respond to the crisis and to clear up confusion surrounding the recall.
Add to this the U.S. auto industry's financial troubles, and there is undoubtedly a need for catharsis at the expense of a non-U.S. auto maker. While U.S. manufacturers may not be regarding Toyota's troubles with glee, it probably feels good to be out of the spotlight for a moment.
Still, consumers cut brands quite a bit of slack. According to the consulting firm Interbrand, Toyota was the eighth most valuable brand worldwide in 2009, and got there in large part because of its strong reputation for reliability. While the crisis strikes at the heart of Toyota's brand promise, the company's management has handled the situation, if not perfectly, then reasonably well. It has assumed responsibility for the problem, pledged to fix it and appointed a task force to undertake a deeper investigation of the issues.
Brands crash when their managers appear to be hiding something. Successive revelations of Tiger Woods's scandalous behaviour quickly led to his personal brand's demise; in 2000, the Ford brand suffered because of its reciprocal finger-pointing with Firestone over fatalities in Ford Explorers. In this case - so far - it appears Toyota has been honest, if slow to respond.
What happens next depends on whether further problems emerge and Toyota's management is caught out by another unexpected revelation. In the absence of that, look for Toyota's brand to recover, not instantly but, like some of its cars, faster than you expect.
David Dunne is adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.
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