Joel Byron Barker

A writer with a toolbox chock full of pegs both square and round.

Trust and Toyota: What is Brand These Days?

by joel - February 17th, 2010.
Filed under: Joel gets it, Marketing in these modern times.
Original Toyota Logo

Original Toyota Logo

While scraping the last of the coffee grounds out of the grinder, trying to maximize that pot of coffee this morning, I heard an NPR Morning Edition segment on how people’s trust of Toyota is irrationally affected by incidences such as the recent recall.  Apparently, people’s feelings about brands is more than  their desire to own a product; they also need to feel good about the company that is providing the product.  Since Toyota made such a PR boo boo out of their technical errors, people are naturally lessening their receptiveness to the Toyota products.
Quoth the segment:

Mr. DAVID ROPEIK (Risk communication consultant): We don’t calculate risk based on our probabilistic chances of something bad happening. We gauge risk based on do we trust the people who have made the products were taking; the pharmaceuticals, the cars, the neighboring nuclear power plant.

JOHN HAMILTON: And Ropeik says often we don’t, especially if we think they may have withheld information about the safety of a product. He says people also tend to think something is especially dangerous if its being imposed on them.

I agree with the insinuation of the article: since we can’t control everything about the complex items we purchase these days (cars, health insurance, software), we choose organizations — in the form of brands — that we trust.
Up until a month ago, Toyota was a company that we trusted. Now, they have lost that trust and expect to lose market share as a result.
Interestingly, as I was writing this, NPR’s All Things Considered had another article on Toyota, about customers crowding Toyota dealers looking for bargains. This is a (arguably more rational)  move of people trusting in the enduring reputation  of Toyota.  They expect that the government and the company are motivated to make good on the current issue and are capable of making a safe, quality car. Perhaps “reputation” can stand in for “brand” in some situations.
They may still see a reduction in sales, but everyone is pretty confident that Toyota will pull through.
I think that there are two pretty obvious reasons Toyota can survive this:
    1. Toyota makes quality products.
    2. Toyota has a trusted brand.
One without the other would significantly increase the risk to the company.
Where is brand in a transaction?

Where is brand in a transaction?

I started thinking about what makes up a brand, and it reminded me of a small strange memory from a couple of years ago: I was having coffee at a local marketing agency and I overheard a fellow taking on that Theorist Tone of Voice that gets me excited. He spread his arms out before him as he made his pronouncement:

“I have been thinking that perhaps there is no such thing as brand.”

I wanted to believe him, because I find the concept of brand to be an irksome illusion.  Isn’t the normal treatment of brand just the installation of a thin, shiny scrim in front of the corporate headquarters?  Brand is so often something that we hide behind.  These days, my thinking is that brand DOES exist, but that brand is almost always misused.
But after listening to the Toyota article, I want to take a second look at brand. Brand is made by the customer and company in union. An agency or writer can explain it, but they ought not actively change it. Eventually, particularly in this wired world, your customers will discover what you really are and turn away.  Now, I am thinking that brand exists.  It is not an illusion and it is not a false front.  My new working definition of brand:

Brand is Faith

Oh yeah.

6 Responses to Trust and Toyota: What is Brand These Days?

  1. An interesting, more focused take on automotive brands: Cameron McNaughton makes the claim that automotive brands are an emotional appeal more than an article of faith.

  2. Isn’t a brand just an attempt by any entity to manage the perception that others have of it? For example, my brand is an attractive, 30-something redhead with a cool demeanor and a quick wit. Obviously, I’m not being mass produced and sold worldwide (although that would be a pretty cool movie), but it’s essentially the same deal. It’s really just the same as a reputation, and in any case, on any scale, whether it’s me or Toyota, it has to be managed.

    And I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation. Oh no. Not me.

  3. Fascinating journey, Mr. Barker. Try inserting the word “reputation” for “brand” and let us know what you think.

    “Nuther point: Has anyone questioned why the government is holding hearings on this? It would seem the recall issues concern the company and its customers. I don’t know why we need a gavel and posturing bluehairs to hang out some laundry.

  4. S. Vera has another, totally contradictory take on “brand” over here: I put my oar in, of course.

  5. From Truly Deeply Madly: Brand is trust.

  6. Nice thought Joel. There are brands playing russian roulette with the customers trust every day. It takes years to build and a moment to destroy.