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Toyota finds it’s not easy being green

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.


What happened?
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 Web site, 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.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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