EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected. The original story incorrectly listed Bill Fay's age. Toyota's group vice president of marketing is 54.
LOS ANGELES -- Its image still bruised by driver complaints about unintended acceleration, Toyota Division has decided to revamp its marketing message and shift the focus to safety in a big way, top executives said last week.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s sales fell 34 percent in August and are down 1 percent for the year -- it's the only major manufacturer with a decline for 2010. Executives admit consumers have doubts about the safety and quality of Toyota vehicles, so they are planning an advertising blitz to counter that perception.
For years, Toyota's brand message has been based on quality, durability and reliability, with a dash of value thrown in at the tag line. But with both Toyota loyalists and possible converts now skeptical of that message, the automaker is putting safety first.
"What we're dealing with is a perception issue, and brand perceptions are not brand realities," said Bob Carter, Toyota Division general manager. "If a customer has removed us from their consideration list, it was because of a perception of Toyota safety."
Since November, Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles worldwide and 10.5 million in the United States, most for complaints related to unintended acceleration.
In January, the company suspended sales of eight models linked to allegations of runaway vehicles. Recalls were issued for sticky throttle pedals and incorrectly installed floor mats, which Toyota insists are the causes of its unintended-acceleration problems.
Federal regulators studying reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles said last month that a preliminary review of crash data recordings had found no evidence of electronic causes.
Carter said the safety theme will continue in Toyota's brand advertising until consumer attitudes change.
"If you look at various attributes of cars -- performance, handling, value -- those are set like a volume knob [on a stereo] by consumers," Carter said in an interview. "But safety, that's a light switch. Either you have it or you don't."
Toyota is still working on creative elements of the campaign. Executives aren't offering details, except to say ads will feature the Star Safety System, which includes enhanced vehicle stability control and traction control, antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist.
Overseeing the campaign is Bill Fay, who took over in May as Toyota group vice president of marketing. Fay, 54, previously was in charge of sales administration.
"We're going to evolve from kind-of apologizing to being a bit more confident and reassuring in the QDR [quality, durability and reliability] that got us this far," Fay said in an interview.
Toyota brand's U.S. sales dropped 35 percent in August. That was partly because the brand was the No. 1 beneficiary of cash-for-clunkers trade-ins last August. That gave Toyota a tough mark to equal this year. But Toyota Division was also down 14.4 percent compared with July sales -- more than any other major brand.
Toyota remained the No. 1 brand in retail sales in August. And Toyota says fleet sales were just 6 percent of volume.
Toyota says its conquest sales have returned to pre-crisis levels, about 57 percent of total sales.
Compete Automotive, a consulting firm, says consideration of Toyota by shoppers had declined significantly since January. But the percentage shopping only for a Toyota has stayed stable throughout the crisis, said Dennis Bulgarelli, a Compete director.
Since early summer, Compete also has noted an increase in interest in Toyota from people who also shop other brands, although that may have been driven by increased incentive spending by Toyota.
That surge has put interest in Toyota almost back to pre-recall levels, though it is still below year-ago levels, Bulgarelli said.
Said Fay of the coming ad campaign: "We need to make an emotional connection with people who own or are considering our product. We need to address the concerns of the customer, based on what we've been through this year."
He said the safety campaign should run well into 2011.
"This is not a short-term thing where we run an execution or two," Fay said. "We still have QDR. We just have to assure customers that's the case."