Armed with sophisticated computers, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. began pitching its new Tundra pickup six months before it will reach showrooms.
The carmaker started a three-phase program of direct mailings to just over 300,000 prospects in January, said Dave Cordes, Toyota's direct marketing manager.
The mailings for Toyota's first eight-cylinder, full-sized pickup serve as another example of a rapidly growing trend: Automakers are using advance mailings and events to build awareness and consideration up to a year before their new products go on sale.
Direct mail has increased in all industries in the past five years since improved database technology provides more detailed prospect information, said John Bissell, managing partner of Gundersen Partners, a management consulting firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., that deals only with marketing clients.
He described today's direct mail as a device to build rapport with customers - not a one-time selling tool.
Tundra mail recipients were asked to fill out a survey about truck needs and usage. Toyota received 14,300 completed surveys, translating to a return rate of about 4.5 percent, a better-than-average rate, according to Bissell.
In addition, an identical survey was posted on Toyota's Web site, where nearly 2,800 people responded, Cordes said. Nearly all online survey respondents were Toyota owners.
The second mailing went to almost 40,000 prospects, including the combined 17,100 respondents to the mail and online surveys. Most of the other recipients had sought more Tundra information via the Internet or an 800 number or had sent a business reply card from an auto show brochure.
All got a 10-minute video about the pickup and one of four brochures, depending on their answers on usage. In addition to a generic brochure, the other three were customized for 'weekend warriors,' commercial users and light-duty personal users.
Cordes said the program has given Toyota a better idea of how prospects will use the 2000 Tundra, which will help fine-tune positioning for the pickup.
A surprising finding: Prospects plan to use the Tundra as an image vehicle, not simply for utility.
The final phase is the biggest. Nearly 500,000 prospects, including all the original 300,000, will receive invitations, the first on May 24, to test-drive the pickup. Participants will get a flashlight kit as a thank you for the test-drive. Toyota worked with Polk Co., a Detroit-based research firm that tracks vehicle registrations, to develop the Tundra mailing list.
The test-drive invitation will be staggered in three waves, 14 days apart, so dealers are not swamped with prospects, Cordes explained. Dealers will get a kit to help them schedule and log test-drives and manage leads.
Separately, Toyota partnered with software giant Microsoft Corp.'s online MSN Gaming Zone for a customized tournament called Tundra Madness featuring the new pickup. Players at MSN's Web site at www.zone.com can vie to win a Tundra.
Four finalists will battle for that top prize June 18 at Toyota's plant in Princeton, Ind.