Perception meets reception

By Patrick Whiteley
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, March 8, 2010
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The Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, a favorite of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, wrote that there is no reality, only perception.

Indeed perception is everything when it comes to branding.

Despite the reality of Toyota's decades of excellence, some Chinese perceive the Japanese motoring icon very differently than does a veteran Sydney deliveryman, who swears by his "unbreakable" Toyota Hiace.

The day after Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda made an extraordinary apology to the Chinese public, I rang a Beijing-based American friend who has been seriously considering buying a Camry and asked if the recall had affected his decision.

I also requested him to ask around his small office and gauge the impact of the recall on his Chinese colleagues, who are all very keen new drivers.

Their responses were very interesting:

One. They didn't take much notice about the apology and were much more interested in the Winter Olympics speed skating.

Two. They don't like Toyota because it is a Japanese company, and we don't like Japan.

Three. The cars Toyota sells in China are not of the same quality and safety as those sold in America.

Four. The recall means that Toyota cars aren't safe, so they were right.

My American buddy said the recall didn't affect his decision but he gave the Camry a miss, and has opted for a BMW 3-series.

Although it was a small sample of views, it reflects some Chinese attitudes towards the Japanese car giant - which knows it has a lot of work to do in the nation.

Pride also comes before a fall and Toyota must rid itself of the arrogance that gathered momentum as it overtook General Motors in 2008 as the largest carmaker in the world.

Toyoda's dramatic apology in Beijing was good start.

With trembling hands, he read a statement in which he took full responsibility and bowed to Chinese reporters. In the one-hour news conference he said sorry four times.

"Face" is highly valued in China and Japan, perhaps more so than in many other countries, so watching a Japanese corporate chief kowtow to the Chinese public was extraordinary.

During Toyoda's personal appeal he offered his condolences over the deaths of four American family members in a crash of their Toyota in late August. But why did it take six months to come clean and tell the truth?

If the crash wasn't caught on a 911 tape when the car's passengers called police to report their accelerator was stuck, would there have been a recall?

American road safety expert and four-time candidate for US president Ralph Nader doesn't think so. "That crash ... would have been, like so many others, attributed to driver error and swept under the carpet," he said.

Nader said Toyota introduced electronic throttle controls in 2002 on certain Camry and Lexus models, and consumer complaints about sudden acceleration have since quadrupled on those models.

"It is not surprising that Toyota responded to the seven-year-old sudden acceleration problem by first blaming driver error, then by claiming floor mat interference, then by admitting that many of the 2.3 million recalled Toyotas in the United States had a gas pedal prone to sticking," Nader charged.

Toyota's corporate hubris needed deflating and Toyoda's performance in Beijing reflects the company's attitude towards the China's booming market.

It values China's fast-growing market very, very much.

China's relatively new mainstream motoring culture is made up of rookie drivers who haven't experienced the 30 years of Toyota's reliability and quality that many Westerners have.

Toyota vehicles have lined up against many other good brands in China over that time and the other marques have not had recalls. So in the minds of some new Chinese drivers, a Czech-made Skoda is safer than a Toyota because in its short time in China, it has never has had a recall.

When Akio's grandfather founded the company the name was called Toyota because its character of eight strokes were considered luckier than 10 for Toyoda.

The company has enjoyed great fortune, but in 2010 it doesn't need luck to win over Chinese customers. It has to continue eating humble pie and start afresh.

Maybe the chiefs might take a look a Skoda's very successful China marketing manual for some new ideas.

The author is a veteran auto writer in Australia.

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