"That's peanuts and strawberries; we call it the sandwich garden," explains Sue Erhardt, Greening of Detroit's education director. "Now the kids can walk out here at lunch and see the origins of their peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
Jim Farley, 45, who was group marketing vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. until he left recently for Ford Motor Co., said Americans will come to see the company more as a neighbor than a foreign automaker through its backing of such local projects and events.
-"Americans will realize that Toyota is extremely localized here," said Farley. "They'll know that it's a lot more than us signing a check. We're going to do high school football, horse racing, lumberjack competitions — and we're going to do it over a long period of time, so that we are recognized as a community-based company."
Toyota has piled up an ever-increasing economic stake in North America, which it puts at about $16.7 billion and 13 vehicle, engine and parts plants employing more than 37,000 workers. Toyota says its jobs impact widens to several hundred thousand when payrolls at its suppliers are included.
The company is expected to build 1.6 million vehicles in North America this year, but capacity will rise to 2.2 million in 2010 with the opening of assembly plants in Mississippi and Ontario. More plants, undoubtedly, are on the way.
Toyota is not shy about promoting its economic clout. In one national TV commercial, viewers are taken on a road-level tour of the United States while a voice-over comments on the social and economic contributions of an unnamed automaker; Toyota is identified only at the end.
The message also is carried in magazine and newspaper ads and was posted on billboards this year at Metro stations in Washington for the benefit of commuting Capitol Hill aides and media types.
"We protect our brand by explaining what we do and how we are part of the fabric of the country," says Dave Illingworth, 64, senior vice president and chief planning and administrative officer for Toyota Motor Sales. "But you can't fool the American public. You can't say you are American unless you expand the plants and expand the footprint.
"If we weren't doing it, people wouldn't believe it, and it would actually backfire."
Toyota began promoting its contributions to the U.S. economy in the early 1990s after a wave of Japan-bashing in the previous decade had led to "voluntary" restraints on exports and the threat of 100 percent tariffs on Japanese luxury vehicles. That meant Lexus, of course.
"That really scared us," Illingworth recalls. "We realized we cannot let this happen. We have to let people understand how many plants we have, how much money we've invested in the country."
But Toyota has amped up both the volume and the red-white-and-blue tenor of the campaign in the past couple of years to coincide with the launch of its first full-sized pickup, the Tundra.
The Tundra is aimed squarely at the last bastion of the Detroit 3, a segment marked by blue-collar demographics, red-state addresses and fierce loyalty to U.S. brands that can span generations. For the year to date, the 19 middle-of-the-country states that make up the truck-heavy heartland have generated just 28 percent of all Toyota-brand sales in the United States. That percentage would be lower still except for strong sales in the Chicago region, where Toyota is No. 1 in passenger cars.
To crash its way over the ramparts, Toyota is spending at least $100 million to market and promote the good-ol'-boy credentials of the Tundra, which is built at a new $1.2 billion plant in San Antonio.
Trying to out-Ford Ford, which builds the segment-leading F-150, Tundra's TV commercials are built around rugged-men-at-work visuals and Texas-drawl voice-overs, with clear mention of where the truck is built. The message: Driving a Toyota truck and being a true-blue American are not mutually exclusive.
At the same time, Toyota is building brand awareness across the rural heartland with tie-in sponsorships of livestock shows, bass-fishing tournaments and test-drive offers at sports shops and lumber stores. Also playing to that audience, the automaker sponsored the 2007 tour of country music superstars Brooks & Dunn and will link it to the Pentagon's support program for deployed troops and their families, "America Supports You."
Toyota also made its NASCAR debut this year, showing it knows where to find pickup owners (see story, Page 165).