Everyone wants to be seen as green these days, and if you haven’t been paying attention lately, you might assume that Toyota is in an enviable position with those environmentally-focused consumers. Its Prius hybrid has been one of the feel-good stories of the past few years, winning over green consumers and selling well, also. But you’d be wrong. Green activists are now targeting Toyota, and it is a sobering story on how the new PR works.
The Web happened, and Toyota has seemingly been blind-sided by its impact on public relations. Newsweek has an excellent treatment of the backstory, which it called Toyota’s Green Problem. The short version is that Toyota doesn’t realize that everything it does is in public view nowadays, and that the Web provides its critics with a free printing press to call Toyota on its values.
The green folks have several complaints with Toyota, but the biggest surrounds the company’s opposition to new U.S. government gas mileage proposals. According to Newsweek, Toyota is lobbying the U.S. Congress to stay away from tougher regulations and has joined U.S. automakers in a lawsuit over tougher California regulations. Time was that this sort of back room political machination would struggle to get printed in the mainstream media. But the blogosphere has brought this issue to the fore, which now drives the mainstream media (such as Newsweek) to call even more attention to it. Activists even organized 100,000 protest e-mails to be sent to Toyota.
Now, several other carmakers are opposed to the new mileage proposals also, but it’s not a good story to criticize GM for not being green. Toyota’s success with the Prius, on the other hand, leaves the green folks feeling betrayed. They thought Toyota was different.
How should Toyota respond to this? You’d think that they’d realize that their brand image is tied up in this fight and that it might make sense to re-evaluate their stand on the mileage proposals. They may well be doing that behind closed doors, but publicly, they are defending their right to take that position.
And they are responding with a very old-world PR campaign. They have a series of “Why Not?” TV commercials asking “tough questions” about being environmentally responsible. Oh sure, they have the obligatory , too.
So what is happening now? Activists are asking Toyota, “Why not drop the opposition to the new mileage standards? Why not?” They are even using Toyota’s own commercials in their campaign, as this video shows.
Toyota’s saga illustrates how difficult it can be to ride the wave. Toyota’s success with Prius has been fed by online and offline media—the story sounds planet-friendly, so it spreads as interest in combating global warming rises. But to continue to ride this green wave, Toyota must carefully decide how it will follow through in every area to remain in concert with this new brand image. That’s what the new marketing and PR approach demands, because everything your company does is in public and can be commented upon. And that is what really drives your brand image, not just what you say about yourself.
I don’t know whether Toyota should abandon its opposition to the new mileage proposals, but it clearly must decide between a green image and this opposition—the Web demands that you be consistent and won’t stop bugging you about it until the media piles on and gives you an old-fashioned PR crisis. Of course Toyota has every right to do what it is doing—there’s no law demanding consistency—but the new online marketing and PR tend to make it an unsuccessful approach.