Why Toyota is afraid of being No. 1 Toyota is relying on ever-savvier PR to avoid the U.S. backlash it dreads. Ask consumers why Toyota may soon be the largest automaker in the world, and they will point to the Camry. Or the Prius. Or the RAV4. (It's the cars, stupid.) Ask manufacturing geeks, and they'll tell you it's about just-in-time production and a maniacal focus on constant improvement. (It's the engineering, dummy.) But there's another drama behind the carmaker's tire-squealing momentum. It's a story that might be called: How Toyota is winning the hearts and minds of America.
With a deft combination of marketing, public relations, and lobbying, Toyota has done a remarkable job over the past 20 years of selling itself as an American company. That drives the Big Three to distraction. Here's Chrysler communications chief Jason Vines: "The thing I resent is Toyota wrapping themselves in the American flag," he says. "We still employ more people and contribute more to the economy."
Who cares what Detroit thinks? Well, strange as it sounds, Toyota does. Its executives may privately relish victory at the expense of General Motors (GM ), Ford (F ), and Chrysler (DCX ), but here's the truth: Toyota is afraid to be No. 1—or at least what that implies. And not just because one of its slogans is "Run scared." It's because the extra scrutiny could undo much of the hard work of the past 20 years. "We constantly need to think about the potential backlash against us," Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe tells BusinessWeek in an exclusive interview. "It's very important for our company and products to earn citizenship in the U.S. We need to make sure we are accepted."
A 17.4% retail market share should signal acceptance. But Toyota is not admired from sea to shining sea. Yes, the company has won the coasts. But one-third of car buyers are biased against imports, says Harris Interactive. And most of those Ford- and Chevy-loving holdouts live in the Midwest and Texas. In those precincts, Toyota still has a lot of persuading to do. Which explains why it launched the full-size Tundra pickup—a red state vehicle from its aggressive hood to its brawny haunches—and is building it in San Antonio. More at BusinessWeek
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