While creating the WiLL Vi car, a group of young Toyota designers looked around their conference room one day last year and realized none of them smoked.
So they eliminated the car's ashtray.
That is unusual in Japan, where many smoke. And it certainly wouldn't pass muster with top Toyota executives - most of them smokers - who approve new-car designs.
But the WiLL project was designed from the start to break the rules. So the WiLL Vi (pronounced vee-eye) went on sale in January with no ashtray. It's a sign of how much freedom Toyota gave the team commissioned to create this car - and what Toyota is willing to do to attract a new generation of buyers.
Though Toyota plans to only sell 1,500 of the WiLL Vi models each month, its expectations for the car are much greater. Indeed, the vehicle arguably is the most significant car Toyota will launch in Japan this year.
It is aimed directly at young female buyers who until now have shunned Toyota's sensible image: staid, reliable cars for middle-aged buyers.
To reach them, Toyota is marketing the WiLL Vi through an innovative partnership with four other non-automotive companies. The car's design - and its marketing campaign - deliberately mocks the snob appeal of technology-laden cars.
The WiLL's instrument panel resembles a submarine sandwich, and Toyota printed a postcard-sized picture of it with lettuce and tomatoes included. Other illustrations show the car as a pet on a leash and as a computer mouse.
Another illustration shows a pumpkin as Cinderella's carriage; the car is not visible. The company is sponsoring a contest on the WiLL Web site to come up with a nickname for the car.
Both the car itself, with its odd, sawed-off New Beetle looks, and the marketing approach reflect a new willingness on the part of Toyota, usually the most conservative of companies, to experiment.
'It's been said that Toyota has not been particularly strong in attracting young people,' said Toyota President Fujio Cho at the launch. 'But we believe the WiLL Vi will send a strong message to the new generation.'
Some observers aren't so sure. Industry analyst Jim Hall viewed Toyota's prototype last October during the Tokyo Motor Show.
'It's like General Motors' trying to get in touch with 20-year-olds, said Jim Hall, a Michigan consultant for AutoPacific Inc. 'No, these guys (at Toyota) are worse than General Motors. They're the Buick of Japan.'
If the WiLL Vi succeeds, it could help Toyota dominate the Japanese market for years to come. That would make it a stronger rival to smaller carmakers as well.
'Niche players will struggle if WiLL succeeds,' predicted Kunihiko Shiohara, auto analyst for Goldman Sachs (Japan) Ltd.
That's not how it looked a few years ago. Toyota was Japan's largest carmaker by a large margin. Most of its buyers, however, were well over age 40. Younger shoppers were turning to rivals such as Honda Motor Co., Suzuki Motor Corp. and imports.
Indeed, a 1998 survey of 4,000 vehicle owners by J.D. Power Asia Pacific Inc. found that ownership of Toyota cars among the 20-to-29 age group was 11.4 percent, barely half of Honda's 21.7 percent.
Hiroshi Okuda, then Toyota's president, decided drastic action was necessary. He set up Virtual Venture Co., a company within a company that reported directly to him.
Staffed by 50 young Toyota employees and located apart from other Toyota operations, VVC was given a mandate: Do whatever it takes to attract buyers in their 20s.
Then Okuda backed off. He let it be known that other branches of Toyota, whether product development or marketing, should help VVC but try not to influence its decisions. Junzo Shimizu, 51, was named president of VVC. He worried openly about whether he should even talk in meetings, lest his comments squelch ideas from young staffers.
A new car
VVC's first assignment was to plan and design MegaWeb, Toyota's automotive theme park in the resort-like Tokyo Bay area. But its real job was to come up with a new car and a new way of selling it. The freedom and isolation were absolutely necessary, observers say.
'As long as they worked in-house, it was very difficult for Toyota to break through its traditional culture,' Shiohara said. 'VVC had a budget, but nobody told them how to spend it.'
VVC staffers took advantage of their new corporate freedom. The ashtray decision, for example, was an easy one because the designers themselves represented a focus group of the car's target buyers.
Near the end of 1998 they came up with another radical idea. Why not cross-market the car with beer, computers and other products young people buy? A common brand identity could be built across a varied line of goods, they reasoned.
'We knocked on many companies' doors, showing them photos of car models. We told them that we would like to support a new way of life through these models,' Shimizu said.
Toyota and four other companies launched the WiLL project last August and agreed it would last at least three years. The idea was to combine the marketing power of disparate companies seeking the same audience: young female consumers.
So far, WiLL encompasses the following:
WiLL Clear Mist, a deodorizing spray to erase cigarette smells. Kao Corp. packaged its product in a dark orange container, ignoring typical thinking that cleaning liquids should be packaged in clear or pastel containers.
WiLL Smooth Beer. Launched by Asahi Breweries Ltd. in October, the beer generated three times as many sales as anticipated.
WiLL Tour, a customized tour package for young travelers who dislike traditional, highly structured tours. Kinki Nippon Tourist Co.'s tour packages have done moderately well.
WiLL computer, refrigerator and microwave oven. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s back-to-the-basics computer has been particularly successful at attracting female buyers. The latter two products went on sale February 1. It is too soon to say how they are doing.
More partners may be added, Shimizu said. 'We want to surround the life of young people. The current five companies are not enough.'
Toyota is aiming the WiLL Vi at Japanese buyers who are female and much younger than the buyers of any other car in its lineup. Toyota expects 70 percent of the car's buyers to be women, mostly single. Of all buyers, 40 percent are expected to be women in their 20s and another 25 percent women in their 30s. Another 5 percent of buyers are expected to be women over 40.
No Internet sales
VVC members broke a number of marketing traditions with the WiLL Vi but fell short when they sought a new sales approach. The car's designers initially wanted to sell it over the Internet, but that's not how it worked out. Instead, it will be sold through Toyota's Vista channel.
While the marketing plan was taking shape, so was the car.
'Cars were originally mechanical and more simple. They've become too complex,' WiLL Vi designer Shinji Hamada said. 'Most cars are designed for speed, and the key concept words are `sporty' or `dynamic.' '
Not the WiLL Vi. 'We said `Relax, lie down',' he said. For the exterior, the design team took as its symbol a pumpkin, symbolic of Cinderella's coach. For the interior, the goal was 'to make it like your own room, a place to relax in,' Hamada said.
The car is deliberately low-tech. The cloth seats are adequate but not at all luxurious. If you want a sunroof, you get a canvas top. Although the front offers power windows, the rear windows rely on hand cranks. 'It's enjoyable to turn a crank, not just push a button,' Hamada said.
The car was designed for an anti-snob appeal. Over the past decade, '(Japanese) consumers have shifted from high-quality luxury brands to products that people think meet their personal needs,' Shimizu said.
When Toyota's senior management finally saw the WiLL Vi, 'They were shocked,' Shimizu said. 'I'm sure they can't understand the concept or the car itself. Anyway, they supported me.'
The WiLL Vi uses Toyota's new economical Vitz platform, making it the fourth car to do so.
The car comes in two variants. A base model is priced at 1.3 million yen, or $12,380. With the optional canvas sunroof, the price rises to $13,810.
Other than a window visor and a choice of two license plate frames, there are no options to customize the exterior of the car.
If buyers want those items, they can probably find them at an aftermarket store, Hamada said. Those stores sell add-on ashtrays, too. So the WiLL Vi can be sold to smokers as well as nonsmokers, he said.