By: Bruce Shipkowski and Tom Krisher, The Associated Press
Toyota has launched a media campaign to bolster its reputation for quality as nervous customers confront dealers across the country about faulty gas pedal systems.
Crisis-management experts said Sunday that the recall of millions of cars and trucks isn’t the Japanese automaker’s only problem: its message to Toyota owners ? delivered in full-page ads Sunday in 20 major newspapers ? isn’t as clear and reassuring as it needs to be.
On Monday, the head of Toyota’s North American sales division, Jim Lentz, is scheduled to appear on NBC’s The Today Show to detail the company’s plans for a fix. Federal regulators have approved Toyota’s plan to start sending parts to dealers in the coming days.
Toyota dealers over the weekend said there has been a noticeable drop in customer traffic and sales, although they have faith that customers loyal to the brand before last week’s recall will not abandon it altogether. Dealers selling U.S. brands have seen more Toyota drivers in their lots than usual but, for now, those visits haven’t translated into many new customers.
Toyota’s black-and-white ads Sunday characterized the halt in sales and production as a “temporary pause” to put customers “first.” The ads don’t give details on how the pedals will be fixed or when customers can expect a remedy.
The company has said the recall of about 4.2 million cars and trucks is related to condensation that builds up in the gas pedal assembly and can cause the accelerator to get stuck. Dealers say the fix involves slipping a shim into an area where springs push the gas pedal back to its resting position after a driver has eased off the gas. Toyota has not commented on the repair.
“They are trying to do the right thing,” said Alexander Edwards, president of automotive research group Strategic Vision, of the ads. “But what’s going on isn’t stated very clearly and that causes more uneasiness with customers.”‘
Larry Smith of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky., said the ads “are intended to buy Toyota a bit of time, to ask people to give them a chance.”
“They are a really good company, and there is no reason they should not snap back from this,” Smith said.
At Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach, Fla., general manager Stu Stewart is hopeful that the slight dropoff in business he’s seen will be temporary.
On Saturday, Stewart said he’d even sold some cars in recent days that have the faulty gas pedal system. Customers will just have to wait for the cars to be fixed before picking up their new vehicles, Stewart said.
At Toyota World of Lakewood, N.J., sales manager Joe Glidden said they had received many calls from customers with questions about the recalls. But he said customer traffic had only slightly decreased since the gas pedal recall was announced Jan. 21.
While it’s unlikely former Toyota lovers are going to defect in droves to GM and Ford ? it’s much more likely disillusioned customers will turn to other Asian manufacturers like Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Hyundai ? the recall will open up doors for the North American automakers.
Industry analysts expect Ford to be among the beneficiaries of Toyota’s troubles because some of its models have recently received good quality scores from third parties, including Consumer Reports magazine.
Toyota could also be just the thing General Motors needs.
Despite a wide array of new products that have been acknowledged with several industry awards, GM is still having a hard time convincing consumers to come back into the fold after a brief stint under bankruptcy protection last year.
Both companies are offering incentives to customers who want to trade in their Toyota due to the recall, and GM said it has received “thousands” of calls from interested Toyota owners.
These incentives will likely be supplemented with marketing campaigns from Toyota’s rivals, said Bill Pochiluk, president of industry adviser AutomotiveCompass.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of sales and marketing by Toyota’s competitors in the very near term to remind the world that they’re still in business and they’ve got great products with great quality,” said Pochiluk, who predicts “substantial conquest sales.”