Toyota just passed Volkswagen AG as the best selling carmaker on earth.
“Steady” is the best word to describe Toyota. It doesn’t have a reputation for huge leaps in innovation. It usually keeps large cash reserves. It prioritizes personnel and doesn’t pay high dividends. It doesn’t have a reputation for bold, groundbreaking marketing or advertising …
… and somehow it’s become the #1 car manufacturer anyway — not in spite of these attributes, but because of them.
Toyota’s culture is the secret to its success. And there are lessons every content marketer can take from the way it approaches its business.
Look Before You Leap
Toyota invests in a culture of consistent work and incremental improvement. Many engine designs last for years with minor changes. Car designs run year after year with minor adjustments. Innovation has sped up in recent years, but the core of Toyota’s success comes from continuous improvement, not huge leaps of faith.
Some try to achieve success by jumping for the new, sexy, interesting option. That jump can lead to results. It can also lead to abject failure. Remember the Chevy SSR? Or the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid? Probably not; these “innovative” ideas bombed. The “look before you leap” philosophy is the foundation that led to major changes like the Toyota Prius.
Hybrid cars hit the mainstream with the Prius in 1997, but Toyota didn’t just have the idea and start its production half-cocked. It laid the groundwork years before. Powertrain design began in 1989, and even before that Toyota was hiring employees from semiconductor companies to help figure out the onboard systems. This innovation was the product of years of steady work. A lot of companies have been caught expecting a trend to last forever and not preparing alternatives (see the truck trend during the 2008 financial crisis.) Toyota always has an iron in the fire and is planning for a different tomorrow.
“People can use revolutionary approaches while making incremental improvements,” says former president and CEO Katsuaki Watanabe. “I am only trying to get people to make the leap from incremental improvement to radical improvement wherever possible.”
Take note of Toyota’s approach here. The key to good marketing can be found in Toyota’s incremental improvement. Be consistent but stay on top of the changes in technology and keep an eye to the future. Don’t push in all your chips — look at all the people that bet everything on Vine, or Myspace, or other platforms that died out. Test, explore, research. Make a small investment of time, money and effort for the future. Make it a priority even when the present is pressing. Then, be ready to commit once you know the idea is solid.
Know the Nuts and Bolts
A culture of consistency requires an understanding of the nuts and bolts.
One of Toyota’s biggest strengths is its understanding of every component that goes into its processes. That approach stems back to genchi genbutsu, a philosophy that loosely translates into English as “have you seen it yourself?” Toyota’s management structure encourages interaction between multiple layers of the company and extends out to dealers, customers and suppliers. “Yokoten,” or exploratory discussions, happen routinely with management and workers. They are encouraged to stay transparent with each other — and rewarded for doing so. The heads of plants often have drinks with line workers after the workday, and senior sales visits customers directly, not just dealers.
When COVID-19 disrupted supply chains throughout China, Toyota surprised industry observers when they were still able to maintain car production. It was because they understood their process down to the lowest level.
Toyota had set aside more chips after the Fukushima disaster caught it off guard years before and had established a reserve of semiconductors even though their production model is based on just-in-time supply chain management. And because they understood the nuts and bolts, they knew which chips to prioritize and gained supply chain flexibility. As many manufacturers moved to the “black box” approach of buying their systems already assembled, Toyota kept expertise in-house.
“This basic approach sets us apart,” said one Toyota engineer. “From what causes flaws in semiconductors to gory details about production processes like what gases and chemicals you use to make the process work, we understand the technology inside and out. It’s a different level of knowledge that you can’t simply gain if you’re just buying those technologies.”
Toyota understands the nuts and bolts of every part of its process. That process takes more time and effort, but it’s paid dividends for the company, particularly when problems arise.
There’s a lesson here for marketing firms in this. For marketers it’s easy to accept what the accepted industry storyline is. Are blogs really dying? Should you start a TikTok?
Lean on genchi genbutsu. Have you seen it yourself?
The same thing applies to selling your company’s products or services without really understanding them. Think of David Ogilvy’s famous Rolls Royce advertisement that launched the Ogilvy and Mather agency. He spent three weeks poring over Rolls Royce’s information before creating the ad, and it produced a 50% increase in sales the next year. Great marketing and advertising come from a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of the products and services being sold.
Do your own measurements. Keep your own counsel. Research your own products.
Do the Work
Consistency means doing the work … every day.
Hard, consistent, plodding work creates the fertile ground where success grows. Results won’t come immediately; they didn’t for Toyota. Its first foreign export car failed in other markets, but it learned from the failure. Toyota didn’t become the biggest automaker in 1950, or 1970, or even 1990. It valued process over profits. And over time, Toyota won.
Success is No Accident
Watanabe put it this way in a 2007 interview: “I don’t know how many years it’s going to take us, but I want Toyota to come up with the dream car — a vehicle that can make the air cleaner than it is, a vehicle that cannot injure people, a vehicle that prevents accidents from happening, a vehicle that can make people healthier the longer they drive it, a vehicle that can excite, entertain, and evoke the emotions of its occupants, a vehicle that can drive around the world on just one tank of gas. That’s what I dream about.”
It sounds impossible — presumptuous, even. But Toyota’s history is filled with “impossible” goals achieved, and the secret is consistent work.
Toyota didn’t luck its way to the top of the heap. It followed three key principles: look before you leap, understand the nuts and bolts, and do the work every day.
Successful marketers do the same thing.
If you’re trying to build a successful strategy for your business, we can help. Know that you don’t need to go it alone. We’re in this with you. If you need a little help, just drop us a line, anytime.
Rainmaker Digital Services