By Yoko Kubota
NAGOYA, Japan, July 1 Toyota Motor Corp
executives have sometimes seemed to share the personality of the
automaker's best-selling cars - dependable and efficient, but
also a bit boring and bland.
That's changing. In recent months, Toyota founding family
scion and President Akio Toyoda has emerged from the
bureaucratic shadows to present himself as the company's
car-loving, fashion-forward salesman-in-chief.
The marketing campaign aides have built around Toyoda is an
unconventional move for a Japanese corporate icon where team
play is prized above outsized personalities.
In recent weeks, Toyoda has donned a race suit to drive the
Lexus LFA super car at the 24-hour race in Germany's
Nuerburgring circuit and turned up at a Lexus party in New York
with a hipster bow-tie and retro glasses.
Meanwhile his assistants have kept a steady newsfeed on the
"Toyota President's Office" Facebook page, which Toyoda was
inspired to set up by the popularity of Japanese Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe's page.
"I am at the top of Toyota and drive cars myself," Toyoda
told reporters at an event in May when discussing the role he
can play in to promote and develop the Lexus brand, which he has
been directly overseeing since April. "I was also born with this
Toyota, which marked its 75th anniversary last year, for
decades let its product speak for itself by building
value-priced cars with bulletproof quality.
In an industry with more than its fair share of celebrity
CEOs comfortable with the limelight, such as Chrysler's Lee
Iacocca and Nissan Motor Co and Renault SA's
Carlos Ghosn, at Toyota the real star has always been the
"Toyota Way" -- the production and management philosophy passed
down from one generation to next from founder Kiichiro Toyoda.
That still remains at the core. But as rivals from General
Motors Co to Hyundai Motor Co to Volkswagen
AG have narrowed the quality gap, the Japanese
automaker has been forced to respond.
In a J.D. Power & Associates survey of initial quality
released in June, a widely followed study in the industry,
General Motors finished ahead of Toyota, highlighting the
increased challenge for the one-time quality king.
To push back, Toyota has been shaking up its slow
decision-making process. It recently named non-Japanese to head
regional operations in some areas and split the carmaker's
operations into four business teams, assigning executive vice
presidents to head three of them.
"The aim is for executives close to the site to see for
themselves what is happening and make speedy decisions," Toyoda,
57, told a news conference on Monday.
It is also trying to bring a new edginess to its brand image
and design. That strategy has put the spotlight on Toyoda,
according to people involved in the effort.
It marks an unlikely, mid-career emergence for Toyoda, the
grandson of the company's founder, just a few years ago was
blogging under a pseudonym.
"One of the main things he is doing is giving Toyota, the
company, a personality," said Julie Hamp, Toyota Motor North
America's Group Vice President in charge of communications.
"He knows that Toyota needs a story and products to fire the
emotions and to ground our identity in new realities today,
which is a more competitive environment."
Toyota declined to make Toyoda available for an interview.
What pushed Toyoda to embrace a radical corporate image
makeover was a series of disasters including the recall crisis
that hit the automaker in 2009, a senior Toyota executive said.
Toyota recalled millions of vehicles globally because of
problems including a glitch in the accelerator and floormat
The company's response to the crisis was slow and, most
damagingly, Toyoda failed to speak up for the company. After
weeks out of the spotlight, Toyoda, who had only been in the top
job for eight months, called a news conference in Nagoya to
apologise, but struggled to provide an English soundbite.
When Toyoda was grilled by a U.S. congressional committee in
February 2010, the experience was scarring, people knowledgeable
about his thinking have said. It left him convinced the company
had to change its approach.
The organisational changes are a key part of the response,
aimed at putting more decisions at the local level so that
Toyota can react to problems faster, while the embrace of social
media is a means of taking control of releasing information.
Until then, Toyoda had seemed uncomfortable with reporters,
only lighting up when talking about his great grandfather's loom
design or the principles of Toyota's quality control, and he
remained reluctant to put himself in the spotlight.
To give him a nudge, the company's designers prepared a kind
of mock fashion magazine for their boss, featuring scenes with
stylishly dressed male models all with Toyoda's head
superimposed on the image, the senior Toyota executive said.
The idea was that Toyoda could be the star salesman if he
could represent the brand and improve its image with edgy
fashion at certain events.
Toyoda first balked at the idea, but has since warmed to the
role. In April, he took stage with a new look -- retro glasses,
hip bowtie -- at the design-themed event for the luxury Lexus
brand held in New York.
Toyota still believes the ultimate differentiator will be
its "ever-better cars", as he likes to put it. But expressing a
bit of personality could make Toyota more inviting.
"The image of Toyota might have been that it is massive and
hard to approach, especially those executives at the top who run
the company - they are out of reach, above the clouds," the
senior executive said. "That might have been the case in the
past, but now that's no longer true."