NEW YORK — New ads for troubled automaker Toyota Motor Corp. are skipping the apologies and easing back into sales pitches – too soon, some say.
The campaign pushes the idea that Toyota customers remain loyal, even as the company faces congressional inquiries and some reports that its repairs may not fix the problem.
The new campaign, by Toyota's main ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, emphasizes what Toyota says are real satisfied buyers testifying that they still feel safe in their new Toyotas even after weeks of revelations about accelerator problems.
"And our own personal experience? These cars that we've had have been exceptionally safe," baby boomer Mark Murphy says in one ad. The ad says he and his wife, Donna, bought Corolla and a Sienna on Feb. 20.
The new campaign, which started March 2 and is scheduled to run through April 5, does one thing right, marketing experts say: Troubled brands have to play to their strengths by wooing loyal fans. But some say skipping past the apologies could make Toyota look like it's mocking safety concerns that are still very real.
Ford Motor Co., for example, laid low on heavy sales pitches for its Ford Explorer for months in 2000 after Bridgestone tires used on the SUVs caused blowouts that led to more than 250 traffic deaths.
People need time to digest bad news, so companies shouldn't try to start selling too soon, said Mike Sheldon, CEO of ad agency Deutsch LA.
"We haven't had that chance to just get through the problem and they're already trying to sell me stuff? I believe that consumers will feel a little confused, like, 'Aren't you still fixing the problem? Why are you trying to sell me so hard?' he said.
Saatchi & Saatchi referred requests for comment on the campaign to Toyota. The automaker's spokespeople didn't respond to requests for comment.
The local and national television ads feature unprecedented incentives from Toyota, which saw its sales fall 9 percent last month. They're the first major sales push since the company's trio of apology ads, which started airing in early February telling owners that Toyota was taking care of problems. Incentives include zero percent financing for five years and auto maintenance plans for new owners that rival offerings by luxury brands.
But buyers don't want that, Sheldon said. They still want to know the company is taking care of its problems before they're sold on new cars, deal or not. The company should have waited at least a month, maybe two before pushing sales, he said.
"Any communication right now should be 'here's what you need to do, here's how we're solving this problem.' Leave the schmaltzy music and imagery out. There are serious issues," Sheldon said.
Some even think Toyota should stop advertising for now and instead tell its story through news reports and social media, which can offer more credibility.
"When there's a very negative story connected with a brand, it's extremely difficult for any paid advertising to deal with that issue because it's self-serving," said Al Ries, chairman of Ries & Ries, a marketing strategy firm in Atlanta. "It's not helping."
But Toyota wants sales. First-time Toyota shopper numbers fell last month, the first full month of sales since the company suspended sales of eight models on Jan. 26. Toyota Vice President Bob Carter told reporters this week that Toyota was focusing less on sales last month, but is shifting back now. All models are back in showrooms.
"Frankly as an organization, we turned our sights away from sales and went 100 percent at taking care of our customers. It was the right thing to do and now coming in March, we're back in the sales business," he said.
Some say the money the company is spending – the amount of which it declined to release – is worth it because it relies on these brand loyalists who can turn skeptical shoppers into potential buyers.
The ads are clearly designed to keep people feeling positively about the brand, said Deborah Mitchell, senior executive fellow at the Wisconsin School of Business. She said they work because they feature so many loyalists, something few companies could pull off during such a tough time.
But that strong loyalty can make the risks even bigger, she said.
"If consumers decide Toyota has lied to them, there will be a huge backlash."