CONTROVERSY:Woes of a global brand
In the world’s most humiliating public consumption of humble pie so far in the 21st Century, the Japanese car giant’s CEO and heir kneels before the US Congress. But how total is the Toyota recall, described in most media as ‘worldwide’? - By DEA Correspondent
“I am embarrassed for you, sir”
These are the words of a congressman to Toyota CEO and third-generation heir Akio Toyoda when he appeared before the United States Congress and apologized for having to recall 8.5 million defective vehicles worldwide.
It was the most stultifying public eating of humble pie in recent memory anywhere. Toyoda offered a fulsome apology but did not grovel, opting instead to point to the fact that the company was founded by his grandfather, that every Toyota car , whether defective or not, bears his surname and that he above all other persons has an interest in the safety of the brand.
But US lawmakers were unrelenting in their special pleading for their constituents, no doubt keeping an opportunistic eye on forthcoming mid-term elections.
It was a bizarre spectacle — the legislature of a foreign country grilling the chief executive of one of the world’s most successful car manufacturers and marketers medium rare and taking their time doing it with a relish. Congress, the parliament of the land of Motown, as former automobile manufacturing centre Detroit was proudly known in its now faraway heyday, had more than one vested interest going.
Toyota is the foremost of the brands that drove Motown out of contention and while this was not exactly payback time, the quiet glee in some legislators’ faces, tone and remarks were unmistakable. A congresswoman actually asked Toyoda to look into the matter of paying the hospital and funeral expenses of American victims of defective Toyotas. What’s more, the American is one market that Toyota and Toyoda cannot afford to lose and the Japanese know that the Americans know that they know they know.
But Toyoda’s handling of a Congress that was clearly baying for blood and a hostile witness was also consummately diplomatic. He deftly sidestepped every head-on collision, made clear-eyed and non-hysterical apologies and offered clarifications going forward. But then Toyoda had more than a little help where it really matters — the Washington lobbyists. Toyota hired the foremost crisis-management experts in the business, Quinn Gillespie & Associates. QP&A have the distinction of being a bipartisan firm. Also on board on Toyota’s side were the Glover Park Group, a Democratic operation. Added to these top guns of PR was the advocacy firepower of 32 lobbyists and Gulf States Toyota, a dealerships’ political action committee.
Africa is also a vast market for Toyota, including in secondhand units. The cars have the best resale value in the automobile industry. East Africa is transported by Toyota. But can we expect Toyoda to pass by the East African Legislative Assembly and essay a heartfelt apology laced with Kiswahili words? Failing this, can we hope for a substantive deputy?
According to the New York Times, there has not been a single recall in Japan itself of the same models now being so hurriedly removed from Europe and North America, despite many accidents, complaints and petitions. Is the world looking at a selective recall?
Has Toyota only recalled defective and dangerous vehicles from developed-world jurisdictions that have the capacity to enforce safety standards, impose towering fines and endanger massive market share?Toyoda had excellent PR and media damage control in the US and the CEO could therefore afford to very publicly eat an excess of humble pie. But if the world’s foremost automotive brand does not attend to its home base or to parts of the world with less rigorous regulatory regimes than the EU and USA, there could be some less-than-diplomatic testing times just ahead
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