Branding Over Bragging Rights: Toyota’s Rise to Number 1

Old News: Toyota, thanks to a stockpile of semiconductor chips, was able to stave off production delays better than other auto manufacturers. As chips became an increasingly hot commodity, most global automakers — including American dominant, General Motors (GM) — were forced to reduce production targets, but Toyota held on a bit longer. As result, they became the top-selling automaker in the United States, dethroning GM and becoming the first foreign manufacturer to ever claim the top spot.

New Story: Semiconductor chips are only part of the reason behind Toyota’s success. In fact, we’d argue that the chips may have a lot to do with how Toyota surged ahead, but not the why. The reason for their success has less to do with what they had in stock, how many vehicles they produced, or how their 2021 sales compared to 2020 and a lot more to do with the brand’s steadfast focus on and commitment to their customers.

The Flexible Philosophy That Led to Toyota’s Chip Stockpile

Toyota is famous for its Just-In-Time (JIT) approach to manufacturing. Yet, despite their tendency to run lean on inventory, bringing in only what they need for production rather than warehousing components, the company also believes in flexibility and change.

As Toyota notes, TPS [Toyota Production System] has evolved through many years of trial and error to improve efficiency based on the Just-in-Time concept developed by Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder (and second president) of Toyota Motor Corporation. In other words, they didn’t implement JIT and assume everything was fine. Toyota continued to watch the market, monitored supply chains, and make changes — as they do today — that made sense given not only their needs, but also the state of the industry. So, when they became aware of a potential supply risk following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the company decided a stockpile of chips would provide security even if it wasn’t strictly JIT.

These chips were necessary for production and were a critical part of Toyota’s mission to continue delivering safe, reliable cars to their customers. And, though Toyota clearly knows the value of evolving their own strategies, this customer focus is one part of the organization that remains unchanged.

Committed to the Brand, Not the Bragging Rights

Analysts may disagree on exactly what led to Toyota’s success beyond the chips themselves, but we see one clear answer. A softer answer that has little to do with numbers, but everything to do with what ultimately matters most: customers.

In response to their new top sales position, Toyota said, “Being number one is never a focus or priority. The company’s focus has always been—and will continue to be—on being the best brand in terms of safety and quality in customers’ minds.” Jack Hollis, senior vice president, Automotive Operations Group, Toyota Motors North America, made a similar statement after the company announced 2021 year-end results: “Despite a second consecutive year of challenges, TMNA focused on delivering an exceptional customer experience.” In contrast, GM noted that they focused on profitability in 2021 and told Toyota, in a roundabout way, to not get too comfortable in the top spot.

Toyota’s statements have nothing to do with sales numbers or production targets. There’s no mention of computer chips or beating out the competition. Instead, Toyota clearly focuses on staying true to their brand by continuing to produce quality vehicles. After all, this focus is what helped Toyota stake a claim in the American auto market when they first began selling in the US in the late 1950s. America’s Big Three — Ford, GM, and Chrysler — were struggling, and the new Japanese brand delivered quality. Even then, the company was clear about their “customer first” approach.

In a way, this feels a bit like Avis’s “We try harder.” campaign. Rather than clambering for market share or pushing for the top spot, Avis knew what they did best — focus on customers and the customer experience — and stayed the course. They leaned into it. Toyota has never positioned itself as the underdog, but they’ve stayed true to their brand. They focused on quality rather than profits. After decades of growth, strategic moves to support manufacturing, and gratitude to their customers, Toyota has accomplished something impressive: They became number one without even considering their rank.

To go from clicks to customers, move your focus from products to people

Clicks don’t mean someone has connected with your product or brand. All they mean is that you’ve managed to grab someone’s attention — with humor, intrigue, wow factor, etc. — to make them act. This, in itself, is a feat.

Grabbing attention has always been central to the marketing and advertising mission. If you can grab the customer’s attention, you can tell them more about what you have to offer and, ideally, generate a sale. Today, however, there’s more vying for our attention than ever before and this becomes truer by the day, meaning brands face an increasingly steep uphill battle. This also means grabbing attention isn’t enough.

But it never was.

Brands with the strongest loyalty understand that the most powerful advertising stems from establishing an emotional connection with consumers. Not simply appealing to an emotion with something like humor, but actually understanding the consumer and the values that get them out of bed in the morning. When advertisers and brands make this shift, moving away from products and toward people, clicks becomes customers and, better yet, these customers become loyal advocates of the brand. Successful brands like Peloton are already doing this, and you can take the same approach.

Peloton’s continued human focus

When Peloton, who sells both products and services in the way of exercise equipment (beginning with a stationary bike) and classes that can be taken at home, first launched, the brand focused heavily on their products to establish brand recognition and carve a space in the industry. However, more recently they’ve transitioned to a more human centric approach. Rather than focusing on functionality, Peloton’s turning their attention to those who will be putting their products and services to use. Or, more specifically, how this use interacts with their life.

The “Better Is In Us” campaign is one of their earlier examples, focusing on the various challenges we overcome in pursuit of something better in ourselves, but Peloton continues evolving this message. The 2020 “Meet Our Members” campaign focused on real Peloton customers and how Peloton products — and ultimately a commitment to exercising with the brand — fit in their daily life. This year’s “It’s You. That Makes us” expands the message by focusing on the community and connection between customers made possible by a shared interest: exercise with Peloton.

If making this transition sounds like a big ask, that’s because it is, but the payoff is even bigger. Understanding the values that resonate loudest with your customers helps you connect more deeply and is possible if you move beyond features and benefits to understand how your brand essence intersects with the personal values you’re trying to reach.

Connecting Benefits to Personal Values

From features, you find benefits. From these benefits, you find values. When you work to understand the root of those values, you can understand the central emotional connection a consumer has with a product.

Unlike a cost benefit value analysis, this connection has nothing to do with actual monetary value. Rather, it’s an emotional-benefit value understanding.  It’s what connects the product’s features and benefits to the consumer’s values and beliefs. Let’s take a general look at how this could play out with a soda product.

Flavor is the unique feature and the refreshment/quenched thirst that comes with drinking it is the benefit. When refreshed, consumers can go about their day and be more productive. This, in turn, lets them live life to the fullest, however that looks to them. That very last stage is where consumers connect. It’s what drives them, often subconsciously or unintentionally, to make a buying decision.

Values-Based Message Development

When an advertiser understands the values and beliefs that create this connection, they can move the consumer from simply understanding the product’s features and benefits to connecting these benefits with their own values and beliefs. Suddenly, consumers imagine how the product affects what they value. This applies to any consumer-facing industry. A particular value may manifest differently from person to person but speaking to that value itself allows every individual to connect in their own way.

When you identify these values, these intrinsic needs, you can speak about your product by focusing on how that product addresses those values. As a result, you help consumers connect and build stronger relationships with your customers.

It’s important to note that this isn’t about how you can attach your brand to potential customers. It’s the opposite. You must understand what your customers value, so they can understand the benefit of attaching themselves to your brand. That’s a nuanced difference, but it’s crucial. When you reach consumers in this way, you generate real interest, new sales, and customers who become proud ambassadors for your brand because your products or services connect with their values.