In January 2010, Toyota faced a nightmare situation for any brand, but particularly for one that staked its reputation on safety and quality: The company had to recall 2.3 million vehicles because of faulty accelerator pedals.
Suddenly, Toyota was trending on Google and Twitter on a daily basis, but for all the wrong reasons. Auto brands had faced similar crises before — Audi in particular grappled with a gas accelerator recall in the 1980s — but none had done so under the 24/7 scrutiny of social media.
But Kimberley Gardiner, Toyota’s national digital marketing and social media manager, saw an opportunity as well. “Right away, we were seeing a lot of conversation and getting a lot of people who were using social media to reach out to us,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of answers at the beginning.”
Toyota’s social media team, which was only a few months old at the time, decided to address the situation head on, but in a novel way: via Digg.
Before Digg’s disastrous Version 4 hit in August 2010, the site had a lot more social media influence. Recall that in 2009, Digg’s traffic ranged from 37 million to 44 million unique visitors each month. Plus, the site had outsize influence on Google News searches. At the time, it seemed like the best place for Toyota to get its message across.
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On February 8, Toyota served up Jim Lentz, president of Toyota’s North American sales operation, to the masses in the form of a Digg Dialogg. In many ways, the appearance was a stroke of genius. For one thing, Lentz didn’t actually appear on Digg, but on a dedicated video site. The questions, which were voted on by fans (the ones with the most votes rose to the top) also wound up being pretty softball. “They were mostly general questions, like ‘What kind of car does Mr. Lentz drive?’” says Florence Drakton, social media manager. (“That’s a great question,” a clearly relieved Lentz answers.) Lentz’s interview, which ran 28 minutes, is still available on YouTube:
It was hard to beat the reach Toyota got from the appearance. Within a week, the Dialogg had received 1.2 million views. “Probably the biggest indicator of interest was there were 3,200 questions,” says Drakton. “Only celebrities have gotten that much.” In addition to reaching a fairly big audience, the Dialogg gave Toyota the appearance of achieving social media branding nirvana: Transparency. Though there were other factors at play, like news fatigue, researcher YouGov’s BrandIndex, which polls 5,000 Internet users daily, saw a bottoming out around the time of the Dialogg. Note: YouGov’s scores are based on consumers’ perception of the brand. A positive is +100 and negative is -100. The scores below are averages:
As the chart shows, Toyota hasn’t completely recovered. “It’s mostly good news,” says Ted Marzilli, senior vice president and global managing director of YouGov’s BrandIndex. “They’ve certainly bounced back, but aren’t back to where they were before the crisis.”
Perhaps a better comparison is to BP, which faced its own PR disaster in mid-2010, probably on a greater scale than Toyota’s. The following chart shows BP’s brand perception before the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and afterwards. As the chart shows, BP has recovered somewhat, but still has an overall negative brand perception.
The best news for Toyota, though, is the company’s brand perception among those in the market for a car within the next six months is high. In YouGov’s most recent survey, Toyota was second only to Honda among that audience; the brand had leapfrogged Ford sometime in August.
Looking back, Gardiner says although the Digg Dialoggs (there were two more in July and August of 2010) were successful, if the same thing happened today, she’d probably use a TweetChat on Twitter instead. In fact, the medium is a favorite of Toyota’s, which has held several such chats in the last few months. Facebook, Gardiner says, is a great way to reach out to Toyota owners, but Twitter addresses those consumers who might be skeptical about the brand.
The choice of the exact form of social media may be beside the point, though. Like Dell, which became a social media poster child after its Dell Hell debacle, Toyota’s recall situation forced the company to embrace social media. “Toyota is an organization that is not used to being on camera and in the spotlight,” Gardiner says. “It was new to many people in the organization. It’s not something you plan for. We’re learning as we go.”