Friday, March 05, 2010

Bad Romance.

The travails of Toyota in the last few weeks have been like something out of The Crucible. It seemed like only yesterday that General Motors had sashayed into D.C. on a corporate jet to ask for a bailout when their four-decade quest to destroy shareholder value, American jobs and brand equity had finally succeeded, and here we were again. This time, instead of getting bags of money, the world’s largest and most successful car company was being subjected to a McCarthyesque inquisition and threatened with the FBI. The unreasonableness of this notwithstanding, it was a tough round for any brand. Considering our taste these days for watching the mighty fall, you had to wonder if this was going to be an epic turning point for the folks from Nagoya.

Except it wasn’t. Despite the best efforts of competitors, the media and the politicians, grassroots support for Toyota was extraordinary. Venture beyond commercial news outlets to places where every crisis doesn’t get its own logo, and you’d see a lot of people were being pretty evenhanded about the whole thing. Defensive, even. In online forums, many owners were dismissing the disaster as nothing more than a promise that Toyotas were going to get even better, given the corporate pride at stake. And at the end of February, when the whole witch hunt had reached its most fevered pitch, a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans still had confidence in Toyota and thought its cars were safe. Owners were even more confident, with three quarters still having faith in their cars and more than 80% believing them to be safe, numbers that in my experience aren’t a quantum deviation from business as usual.

Why was Toyota so resilient? The answer, quite simply, is that consumers are accomplished pattern recognizers, and brands are understood as narratives. Toyota has rarely tried to dazzle and amaze us, whereas it has maintained its dull, plodding quest to avoid embarrassment for a long, long time. The Toyota of today hardly looks a jot different than the one I worked with twenty years ago. Sure, this isn’t over yet. Much depends on what Toyota does next. But the point is that, for now, people assume it will be good because history says that’s their nature. Whatever we may read about the company’s hubris, this brand is hardly what you could call narcissistic. Toyota’s brand bled less than it might have in this particular war because it sweated so much during the long peace that preceded it.

In a sane world, you would think that CEOs and marketing bosses would look at this stunning case and realize that whatever continuity they have in the hearts and minds of consumers is pure gold. Leadership edicts would be handed down. Iconic brands would stay religiously in character. Loved brands would redouble their efforts to remain lovable. Unloved brands would reach out to consumers to reassure them that they matter. Pointless change would be understood as retrograde. Brands would evolve, but they would evolve as stories rather than being variety shows with too many costume changes. You would think.

But we don’t live in a sane world, do we.

Or at least that’s how it’s been feeling the last little while. One after another, in fits of ambition-fueled caprice, certain marketers have chosen this moment – now, when awareness has become ludicrously expensive; now, when consumer confidence is precious and fragile – to kick time-tested icons to the curb. You have Oscar Mayer saying that people shouldn’t be singing that wiener song anymore, and that they would like their luncheon meat to be taken more seriously please. You have BMW ditching the brilliant slogan that built its North American franchise by grounding the brand in the cool competence of its machines. You have Cadillac firing ad agency and key marketing execs from the only successful brand GM has. And Heinz announcing changes to its ketchup recipe to make it a ‘healthier’ condiment for those fries. And AFLAC saying, enough with the duck.

Individually, I’m sure the perpetrators can spin convincing boardroom tales about why change is necessary. But taken together, it just seems like a pattern of reckless marketing. We live in a time when brands don’t have a lot of solid cultural ground to stand on. And consumers, believe it or not, like solid ground. They don’t understand or care that marketers get bored, or desperate, or, worst of all, ambitious. They just know that something they thought they thought was real turns out to be ephemera. People don’t have much of a memory for details when these things happen, it’s true. But they remember the feeling of disruption, and their memory for feelings is unerring and eternal. For them, a brand that remains essentially true to its story is understood to be authentic.

Whereas a brand that changes its clothes every time it wants attention is understood to be Lady Gaga.

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