Anyone taking a stroll through the leafy outskirts of Epsom, Surrey, is in for a shock. Lurking behind the pristine suburban gardens is Toyota's UK headquarters, a mass of glass and steel that locals have been known to compare to a UFO. In some ways this is apt for a brand that has suffered an unexpected encounter or two of its own lately.
Toyota GB marketing director John Thomson had been in his current position for only eight months when the job was turned upside down.
In February, while the rest of the UK's automotive industry pondered the end of the government's scrappage incentive team, Toyota had to recall more than 8m vehicles worldwide for safety concerns. It was a crisis unprecedented in the car industry.
Otherwise relaxed and breezy in his manner, Thomson takes a more serious tone when recalling the company's response. 'All we thought about during that period was our customers, and doing the right thing for them. That was our number-one priority,' he says.
As the scale of the crisis unfolded, the situation was fraught for several weeks, and the 43-year-old speaks with a genuine sense of pride about how the UK team handled a problem that was beyond its control. Network staff across the country worked around the clock to rectify the problems with brake pedals, while head-office employees met three or four times a day to keep abreast of progress.
'Our response to the recall was not just about putting together some marketing slogans, it was about the fantastic reaction from our network,' says Thomson. 'During the recall period, what gave us so much confidence was the coming together of all staff across Toyota GB, and the strength of the team. It showed what can be achieved when you have to achieve.'
So impressed was Thomson with the efforts of the Toyota GB team that he opted to place them at the heart of a four-pronged campaign aimed at winning back consumers' trust. In February and March, a series of print ads promoted the work taking place at dealership level, followed in May by a pan-European, £20m integrated push based on the tagline 'Your Toyota is my Toyota'.
The campaign, by Saatchi & Saatchi, followed a long advertising tradition of using staff as stars, but marked a real first for the automotive sector. Workers from Toyota's manufacturing plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, rubbed shoulders with French designers and German executives in an attempt to show the 'human face' of the corporation.
Thomson claims the campaign won over sceptical consumers in the wake of the recall, but admits Toyota is unlikely to bring staff back to the fore in its marketing any time soon. 'It was important for us to show that side of the business at the time, but, moving on, we have to communicate the benefits of Toyota,' he says.
To emphasise the quality of its products, Toyota has pledged to offer all new-car-buyers a five-year warranty. Not that the company is the first to offer something on these lines: Korean manufacturer Kia has long proclaimed the benefits of its seven-year guarantee, while General Motors-owned Vauxhall recently waded in with a 'lifetime warranty' vow.
Thomson says the promise will form an integral part of Toyota's marketing plans as the brand strives to regain the trust of car-buyers. TV sponsorship of various Channel 4 programmes will make the warranty offer 'unmissable', he claims.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the recall is how little impact it appears to have had on Toyota's retail sales, with the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders projecting only a 10% fall on 2009 figures.
Given the hysterical media coverage at the time, consumers could have been forgiven for thinking that a Toyota vehicle was little more than a deathtrap. Yet between them, sister brands Toyota and Lexus claim to be on track to sell more than 100,000 units. The recall seems a dim and distant memory, and Thomson says that, remarkably, the brand is on course for a 'good year'. For him, the most frustrating aspect of the recall was that it threatened to overshadow what he considers a far more interesting product story for the brand.
With the launch of the Prius hybrid model in the late 90s, Toyota fashioned itself not only into the world's biggest carmaker, but also one of the most innovative. Hybrids now account for about 15% of total UK sales, and the growth of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) range continued this year with the launch of an Auris hybrid model in May.
Traditional marketing plans went ahead as expected. Pre-launch, the brand commissioned outdoor ads all over the UK, which included a very visible Union Flag icon to remind patriotic consumers that the car is built by British workers. In time-honoured tradition, a TV ad followed in the summer, but perhaps more interesting is the 'projection mapping' digital campaign rolled out last month to aim the product at opinion-formers.
The work, by glue Isobar, centres on a viral filmed in London's Shoreditch, in which a light projection 'strips' the outer layer of an Auris hybrid and makes it appear as if the car is energising objects around it. The execution is based on the car's ability to 'recycle' kinetic energy, and social media promotions direct consumers to the Getyourenergyback.co.uk microsite.
Thomson says we can expect more of such digital campaigns to sustain vehicle sales after launch. 'One of the target groups, especially for the Auris HSD, is modern families and tech-savvy consumers, so we thought it appropriate to use cutting-edge technology to promote a cutting edge product,' he adds.
'As marketers we must try new things, using 10%-20% of budget to help us reach out to new customers with a contagious idea. Take what T-Mobile did (with flash mobs); we have to be conscious of what is happening in the digital environment.'
As 2011 approaches, are UK consumers ready to forgive Toyota and move on? Thomson pauses, perhaps concerned not to seem too complacent. 'We can only continue to do the right thing for the customer, to always have that mindset. But what happened has demonstrated the power of the team and network.'
There is a sense of calm at Toyota's ultra-modern headquarters that Thomson echoes with his composed assessment of the challenge ahead. The brand has proved itself capable of the extraordinary, in more than one sense. Now Thomson must help Toyota get back to a more ordinary place: the day job of building and marketing hugely successful cars.
1993-2002: Various positions, Citroen UK
2002-2005: General manager, operations, Lexus GB
2006-2008: Senior manager, marketing, Toyota Europe
2008-2009: General manager, business planning, Toyota Europe
2009-present: Marketing director, Toyota GB
Family: Married with two children
Lives: Dorking, Surrey
Hobbies: Cycling and tennis
Favourite car: Lexus LS
Favourite brand: Nespresso
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk