What is a brand transformation, really? For many brands, it’s not much more than a new tagline and/or a logo tweak, plus a big campaign to signal the change to consumers.
But what if you’re interested in creating a real change, rather than merely the perception of a change? What if you genuinely want to alter the way a brand thinks about itself, the way it actually works, and the way it expresses its new purpose to the market? And what if you want to do all that across a sprawling and diverse region where the rubber has to meet the road through a network of independent distributor companies?
This was the task in front of Toyota Motors Asia Pacific (TMAP), the Singapore-based office that looks after 17 Southeast Asia markets, as it sought to push forward a transformation of the 84-year-old brand.
For a few years now, Toyota has been keen on transforming itself from a product-driven company into a purpose-led company focused on mobility. Toyota president Akio Toyoda himself outlined the vision as far back as 2017.
“We are transforming from an automotive company to a mobility company, delivering all types of mobility solutions to customers to meet their transportation needs,” David Nordstrom, general manager of global brand management for Toyota and Lexus Asia Pacific, told Campaign Asia-Pacific.
Many factors lie behind the venerable automaker’s shift. As reasons for the change, Nordstrom cites changing consumer wants and expectations when it comes to car usage and ownership, the emergence of competition from non-traditional auto brands, and the need to appeal to a younger demographic. He doesn’t specifically mention the climate crisis, but it clearly looms large as a factor altering the landscape.
While Toyota has always had a connection with consumers on a rational level, based on value and quality, Nordstrom continues, it wants to build a more emotional bond. It recognises that companies which build brand power and brand engagement succeed to a greater degree than those that don’t.
However, only by changing the internal understanding of the brand and its purpose could the company hope to change the products and services it will deliver in the future, Nordstrom believes.
“This is not just a brand transformation, but a company transformation,” he stresses. “We need every area of our business to be thinking differently. What could they do, and what do they need to change to deliver mobility solutions for everybody?”
The level of difficulty for driving this change throughout the TMAP organisation would be high. The company operates through independent distributorships in each market, which in turn work with the dealerships that serve as the main consumer contact point. Each of the 17 markets under TMAP’s purview (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam) has its own competitive dynamics, not to mention its own culture and language(s).
The markets had historically gone their own way in terms of operations and marketing—up to and including using their own taglines. But Nordstrom asserts that the distributorships actually drove the brand’s effort to develop a more unified approach. “It was led and initiated by our distributors to determine and identify if there were common needs in each market, and—given the continued globalisation of media, brands and consumer perceptions—discover if there was a benefit in working as a united front,” he says.
Houston, we have a challenge
In 2018, TMAP sought a partner to help drive the transformation process across its vast territory. It carried out a pitch involving a number of agencies, among them Houston Group, a branding agency with offices in Sydney and Melbourne. Houston had already worked with Toyota Australia on a similar brand project that had been deemed a success, and it won the pitch to expand its work to a regional level in December 2018. A kickoff session took place in March 2019.
“Our job was to build a bridge between Akio’s vision and the business of the day,” Stuart O’Brien, founder and CEO of Houston Group, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. “Our job was to hold the distributors’ hands and show them and their people how we’re eventually going to evolve into this new organisation.”
O’Brien refers to the agency’s process as a methodology of engagement. Input gathered in small groups and one-on-ones filtered up to working groups, then to a brand council in each market, and finally to the region as a whole.
Collaboration with all markets was critical for success, Nordstrom agrees. Data, insights and perspectives from all of the markets informed the strategy and creative direction along the journey. The company sought feedback and agreement to ensure that the final outputs would meet the needs of the distributors.
“My trick with this was actually saying, let's stop talking about what's different, and let's actually start talking about what's the same,” O’Brien explains. “Let's start talking about our common challenges. Let's start talking about the common global pressure, around mobilisation, around climate, around what's happening in the community and in the broader world.”
This bottom-up approach reflects a devotion to gemba, a Japanese principle long favoured within Toyota. The term translates as ‘the actual source’, and it refers to focusing one’s efforts on the place that’s at the heart of the matter, the place where value is actually created. Rather than a set of instructions issued from on high, the effort was about bringing together all the people who work at the 'source', and “working through the truth”, O’Brien says, adding that the methodology took people on a journey.
“The whole organisation builds this,” he says. “They see themselves in it. They see themselves input into it, and they see that everything we're doing is for a reason.”
Houston’s model challenged Toyota to find what was common, and equally, to be clear on what was different, in each market, Nordstrom adds.
“It wasn’t invented in the head office in Tokyo or invented by an advertising agency in New York, and now everyone has to pick up and run the campaign,” O’Brien adds. “It is a grassroots vision so that people could see a path towards the business in the future.”
Importantly, the team did not seek to develop an unwavering set of strictures that would govern everyone’s actions forevermore. Instead, Houston’s aim was to provide the markets with flexibility—but within a cohesive brand system.
This means there are core traits that are intended to be consistent across the region, but also a menu of optional traits from which each market can select the two most appropriate characteristics to emphasise.
O’Brien refers to these traits as brand drivers: “Sort of like a brand value, but also more practical”.
“A brand driver is a target of the organisation, almost an instruction, that defines our brand,” he says. “Because brands are more than just one thing now. They’re more complicated.”
In Vietnam, O’Brien says, 'absolute trust, total confidence' is a key driver. Whereas in Singapore, where consumers are more brand-conscious, a more emotional personification, such as 'connected to what’s next' carries more weight.
These brand drivers are not simply marketing slogans, O’Brien stresses. They are tools that every department can use to evaluate its agenda and its execution. “How are we building trust and confidence? How are we building a lifetime of value? What's a ‘brave expression’ that we're doing? How do we demonstrate we’re ‘connected to what’s next’?”
For example, a team building a training program should ask how it’s using the brand driver of ‘brave expression’. “How are we doing something bolder than we would normally do?” O’Brien says.
The system also comes into play to provide structure as each market goes about building ad campaigns.
It used to be that when it came time to launch, say, a new Corolla model, each market would write up a brief from a clean sheet of paper, O’Brien says. Now, the team can write the brief in a way that ensures the resulting work will buttress one of that market’s key brand drivers. For example, if ‘brave expression’ is a driver, the agency might be asked to emphasise the car’s new design elements more than its value proposition.
Distributors around the region are at varying stages along the transformation journey, and TMAP and Houston are still at work supporting them, Nordstrom says.
"The ultimate measure of success will be how consumers respond to this change in Toyota," he says. "When people stop thinking about Toyota in the context of buying a new car and instead think ‘Toyota’ when they need to get somewhere, that is success."
Meanwhile, Nordstrom is measuring progress through brand surveys that track attributes aligned to the brand strategy. A key attribute is brand equity, which Nordstrom says includes three core measures: Toyota must be seen as meaningful (people love the brand, and report that it delivers what they need), different (the brand is unique and trendsetting) and salient (the brand has unprompted awareness).
Soft measures such as internal engagement are also important, such as non-marketing team members talking about the brand and behaving as brand custodians, Nordstrom says.
O’Brien and Nordstrom stress that the biggest impact of all these changes runs deeper than creating better campaigns.
As the project rolled on, it was clear that a lot of reflection was taking place in all kinds of teams within the network, O’Brien says. A lot of markets were re-evaluating existing activations and initiatives and then trying new approaches. "What happened was this platform gave them permission to try new things,” he says. “It gave the brand permission to find new ways to connect to new audiences.”
Nordstrom describes a moment where he knew the project was achieving the kind of buy-in he hoped for. During a project update at a meeting for the regional office’s senior management group, a VP pointed out that the photos the company was using for its executive brand council members—traditional headshots in traditional suits—were no longer aligned to the brand personality.
The project has yielded tangible assets too, O’Brien notes. Among these are descriptions of the brand’s tone of voice, a bevy of training materials, induction videos explaining the brand drivers, guidelines for internal comms, and a proper database of brand assets, which should put an end to individual markets picking up clipart and running with it.
“If you went to work for Toyota tomorrow, you would be inducted into the brand,” O’Brien says. “You would leave feeling inspired and with a deep understanding of your job and what the brand has to do.”
Nordstrom is gratified that all 17 markets bought into the project—an outcome that TMAP was not sure of at the start.
“We hoped some markets would align, and could see the benefit in uniting as a strong global and regional brand,” he says. “Getting 80% of the markets would have been an amazing result. Having all 17 markets is a huge achievement and a testament to the project.”
Last but not least
TMAP has yet to reveal one major output of its brand-transformation process.
Appropriately, it’s the element that a lot of brands would try to come up with first: a single tagline that will be used across the region.
In keeping with the philosophy of the entire project, the tagline is not the product of a lone strategist at HQ or a wordsmith within Houston Group. TMAP engaged the markets to understand the need and desire for a regional tagline, gathered suggestions from all across the region, whittled down to a shortlist, and then conducted consumer testing with 3,200 consumers across the region for strategic fit, how well people liked the taglines, and their uniqueness.
The winning tagline, which will exist in local-language versions in some markets, will be revealed “soon”, the company says.