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Toyota is at risk of alienating female customers (TED A... Toyota is at risk of alienating female customers (TED ALJIBE/AFP, Getty Images).

"Oh what a feeling!" -- Toyota's old corporate advertising theme -- must be taking on a far different meaning these days at company headquarters. From some data we've seen, it appears Toyota could face problems regaining the trust of female consumers as it rebuilds its image in the U.S.

The story just keeps getting worse and worse for Toyota in terms of announcements, Congressional hearings and a litany of bad press. On the marketing side, many of us, including yours truly, have offered thoughts and ideas on how to learn from Toyota's mistakes should your company find itself in similar problematic circumstances. We have also opined on what Toyota should do next and of course listened to Toyota talk about how their loyalty has actually INCREASED (Ad Age "The Cult of Toyota", March 1, 2010) since the recall announcement, at least as measured by their customers comments and additions on Facebook and followers on Twitter.

I could go into great detail about how this use of their social strategy is a day late and a dollar short. But, hey, they get props for at least going there eventually (Honda, by way of comparison, has over 4 times as many followers as measured in a similar way). And truth be told, it is in what the customers are saying, not any of us, that matter at the end of the day. The first indicator of pain or progress was last week's announcements of the February auto sales performance. Toyota lost only 8 points of share, year over year, but last years levels were the worst in its recent history. Still, it's not bad considering the mayhem. This would not look so bad if it weren't for the fact that Ford gained a whopping 43% year over year (yes, over a low base too, but still!).

Why is that? Dan Neely, my friend and founder of Networked Insights, a social listening company that tracks over 17 million blogs, social platforms and websites for a total sample size of 300 million people globally (of which 180 million are US-based), performed a little social listening analysis to see if we could make sense of it.

Take a look at this: The words size and boldness reflect the frequency and strength of usage amongst the over 17 million sites.

So, as usual, we Americans are far more likely to have polarizing viewpoints with the common usage of both "love" and "sucks". We can see from the above that with regard to Toyota, people in the US tend to be focused on issues of reliability and quality, same as our global brethren. We also seem to breathe Honda in the same breath likely because there are similarities to be drawn with the Japanese OEM's but also because it seems that Honda was the last standing automotive brand who's virtues are also firmly and almost solely based on the idea of quality and reliability...at least before the Honda recall that was announced last week. (Note that these slides are reflective of listening trends from the week after the Toyota recall).

Does age matter? Yes. We know that Toyota serves all ages and the Scion brand and Prius have actually pushed Toyota's average buyer age lower. Taking a look again at the Toyota data here, it seems as if the similarities lie in the use of "quality" and "reliability" again. But the more mature Americans are far more critical with the frequent occurrence of the use of words like "junk", "failed", and "judged". It seems the younger audience is more likely to forgive and move on than the more mature of us.

But the most important slide in my estimation is this one. Gender. And no, it is not because I am a woman, but it is because of my years in the automotive sector at both Ford and DaimlerChrysler which taught me that while men make up just over half of all auto purchases, women INFLUENCE over 80% of them. So, let's pay attention here. Both genders speak of "quality" and "issues" but the men are speaking more frequently of "Honda", "fix", and "love" while the women talk of "Ford" most often and critical conversations include words like "report", "failure" and "damage".

Call it a coincidence, but I think that this data was an early indicator of the February sales trends. Ford was the clear winner because it has great products, has not taken TARP funds and is not managed by our government. They also benefit from the fact that more WOMEN have decided that they are the brand to consider, even over Honda.

So, maybe the best piece of advice for Toyota left unsaid so far: pay attention to the women and use your marketing forces to regain their trust. Understand that women are not one size fits all. They are daughters, grandmothers, mothers, single women, married women, divorced women, blue-collar women, white-collar women, rich, poor and everything in between. Emotion, trust, facts, assurance and authenticity matter a lot to them. Find out where they are having these conversations that have been captured in these slides and work to turn it around. Because if you don't, Ford will. Oh, what a feeling.



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