The bad news just keeps coming for Toyota, which this week added hundreds of thousands of its flagship Prius hybrids to its list of 8.5 million recalled cars and trucks. The 2010 Prius has an anti-lock brake problem; some 2010 Camrys need a power-steering hose checked; and dealers are rushing to fix the 2.1 million vehicles at risk for sticking gas pedals. Sales are slumping, but experts say the world's largest car maker can still recover. (Watch a CBS report about Toyota's image.) Here, according to PR experts, are five strategies that might save the Toyota brand:
1. Take responsibility, hide nothing: "Toyota has been honest, if slow to respond," says David Dunne in the Toronto Globe and Mail. That's key — "brands crash when their managers appear to be hiding something." Look at what happened to Tiger Woods' brand when one sexual bombshell after another showed that his image as a squeaky clean family man was a lie.
2. Fix everything, fast: Toyota president Akio Toyoda promised to give customers "safety and peace of mind," says Mike Hull in Seeking Alpha. Toyota can deliver by fixing every recalled car promptly, and with a smile. Toyota customers are "a loyal bunch" — if the company gives them service that's even better than what they've come to expect, they'll come back.
3. Reach out. Let customers know Toyotas are better than ever: Toyota has always liked to plan its marketing moves way in advance, says Sharon Bernstein in the Los Angeles Times. But it can't afford that now — this crisis evolves every day. So Toyota needs "to reach out — with direct marketing, more TV commercials, and a message that it has solved its safety problems and made its vehicles better than ever." U.S. CEO Jim Lentz answered questions from users at social media website Digg on Monday, which was a good start.
4. Move the whole industry forward: When Johnson & Johnson had trouble with Tylenol, says financial journalist Anna Bernasek in The Wall Street Journal, it designed tamper-proof packaging that rivals promptly adopted. Toyota could invite other car companies to design a better gas pedal "and make it standard." That way, if the problem happens again its not Toyota's design. "It's an industry standard."
5. Create a celebrity: Crisis calls for bold leadership, says Rick Newman in U.S. News. In the 1980s, Lee Iacocca helped save Chrysler by "making himself the face of the company." Toyota likes teamwork, but it needs "swagger" now. If Jim Lentz "or any other Toyota pooh-bahs ever dreamed about being a rock star, now's the time to take the stage."