"If you get your new Toyota by January 3rd, you can earn a $500 pre-paid debit card, just for Tweeting about it," according to Toyota's Twitter page. "Until December 15th, the Twitter users with the fastest fingers can get one of 250 certificates available each day."
While I'm usually all for companies taking to social media to engage their customers, this is one instance where I'm left wanting. Earlier this year, I wrote about how Toyota's recall woes were made worse because it had largely ignored the social networking space. Had the company understood the power of that medium it would have realized that active, personal participation would have gone a long way to quelling fears, responding to concerns, and directing people to the appropriate places to get answers and help. Instead, Toyota was late to the game and used "canned" responses, which created little satisfaction to concerned owners.
I asked a Toyota spokeswoman if this new Twitter campaign came about as a result of its experience during the recalls of the past year and didn't get a satisfactory response. At least it appears that the company is trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in the social space, which is a good thing. But the unfortunate reality is that this promotion comes across more like spam than anything that engages the consumer in a dialogue. It's great that customers get money back once they buy a new car, that is, if they were one of the lucky 250 each day that actually got the certificate and they manage to take delivery of their car by January 3rd. But is this enough to make you a fan of the brand? Is the rather small incentive worthwhile or energizing? Would it make you think highly of the brand and tell others about it?
Using social marketing is one thing ,but the message is key. It is no secret that in the past year, Toyota has not seen its sales recover as much other carmakters. There are plenty of thoughts on why this has happened. One is that the recalls have tarnished Toyota's quality image. Another is that it has lacked any significant or exciting product launches. A third is that the competition has really stepped it up and have stolen some of the excitement -- and sales -- as a result.
Likely, all of these and more have been factors, and Toyota has reacted by increasing its sales incentives. In fact, Toyota's average auto incentive rate in November of 2010 was up about 10 percent from the previous year, and yet it was one of the few carmakers to show a year-over-year loss in sales.
In the past, Toyota would have likely stayed the course, kept incentives low, managed its production to match the slowing demand and remained on top where it counts, in profits and customer satisfaction. But it seems that the pressures of the past few years have pushed the company towards more distressed marketing, like this Shareathon Tweeting campaign.
When I worked at Ford and then Chrysler, we were often in awe of the discipline that Toyota managed to have when it came to sales incentives and the accompanying sales events. The former Big 3 were big on pushing out a sales event whenever the forecast showed the slightest downturn, while Toyota was a "steady as she goes" company, always looking beyond the 30-day horizon to the long-term effects of its marketing. Toyota seemed to realize what we didn't or wouldn't acknowledge: that once you train the customer to expect that they can get your car for less than the sticker, you can never, ever go back and ask them to pay full price.
Today though, Toyota seem to offer up sales events with as great a frequency as its Detroit rivals. The amounts it offers have gone up too, and now it's offering these deals, unique as they may be, in new places. Has Toyota finally picked up Detroit's bad habits? I hope not. So while I applaud the effort to engage people in new ways, in new places, I wish Toyota would engage in a way that didn't say "desperate for a sale".