Toyota may hail from a country where men make most of the decisions, but its success in the U.S depends on the attention it pays to the tastes and concerns of women buyers.
Women purchase about 55 percent of all Toyota vehicles and 60 percent of all Toyota passenger cars sold in the U.S. Consequently, "Women are extremely important to us from a product and marketing standpoint," said Sandi Kayse, Toyota's national advertising manager.
While manufacturers don't design cars specifically for women, Toyota, like several other car companies, conducts market research to learn what features women want most. Then it incorporates those features into future models as either standard or optional equipment.
What is it about Toyota women find appealing?
Not surprisingly, Toyota's focus groups revealed that safety and security are top priorities for women.
"When asked what features they want in a car, one of the first things out of women's mouths is, 'airbags,'" Kayse said. "Of course front airbags are mandatory, but women want side-impact and head-protecting curtain airbags."
Kayse noted that Toyota's reputation for quality and reliability always comes up in women's focus groups. "For them, reliability is a peace-of-mind issue," she said. "Women want a car that will get them where they're going and not leave them stranded."
Other features that appeal to women (especially those with families), she said, are features like power door locks, LATCH child-seat anchors, restraint systems and child-safe window buttons.
But women aren't just about safety and security, Kayse said. They're also into styling and interior ergonomics. "Because women tend to be more diminutive in stature, they appreciate things like telescopic steering wheels and grocery-bag hooks in the trunk," Kayse said. "I'm 5-foot-2, and I can't reach the back of the trunk, so it's nice to have hooks to keep the gallon of milk from sliding to the back."
How about adjustable pedals?
"We do offer adjustable pedals, but quite frankly we get a very low install rate — less than 1 percent of our buyers actually order vehicles with them."
Toyota's research also reveals that women are sensitive to noise, vibration and harshness, and are concerned about the comfort of their passengers.
The contrast between men's and women's priorities showed up clearly during a recent mixed (male and female) focus group of the new Avalon.
"The women were all over the interior of the car, whereas the men looked at the exterior and talked about the sleek styling and the horsepower of the great engine," Kayse said.
"The women were all about the 'hosting opportunities' inside of the car — the flat rear floor, the spacious and reclining rear seats, the rear heat/air conditioner vents, and the optional heated front and rear seats. They also liked the easy ingress and egress offered by the wide-opening rear doors, as many of them have to load child seats or are caring for elderly parents."
Toyota research also reveals that the environmental-friendliness of hybrids appeals strongly to women, which bodes well for the hybrid Camry that enters production next year.
Wooing Women: Advertising To reach out to women, Toyota sticks to traditional marketing methods: placing ads in mainstream media and women's specialty magazines, as well as sponsoring several female athletes, who in turn serve as company spokespeople.
This year, the company is promoting its vehicles and its new "Moving Forward" ad campaign by serving as automotive sponsor of Glamour magazine's "Woman of the Year Awards" and O, The Oprah Magazine's "Live Your Best Life Tour." In conjunction with both events, Toyota has created its own "Moving Forward" awards programs to honor women who are working to create positive changes in the world. Winners of the Oprah contest will receive a series of life-coaching seminars, while the three winners of the Glamour contest will win a 2005 Toyota, either a Camry, Prius or Solara.
"Some of our vehicles naturally appeal more to women," Kayse said. "We skew our media buys to target the audience the vehicle most appeals to. For instance, in Good Housekeeping we'd place an ad for the Sienna, not the Tacoma.
"We don't position any vehicle car as a woman's car. Most of our TV ads include both males and females, because there's the old adage that you can sell a woman a 'man's car,' but once you label something a 'woman's car' you'll never sell it to a man. We have to walk a very fine line to reach out to women while appealing to men at the same time."
But Marti Barletta, an expert in marketing to women who has consulted with major automakers, disagrees. "Toyota's use of gender-neutral ads shows they're not understanding one of the fundamentals of advertising and marketing," she said, "which is that you can't talk to all of the people all of the time if you want to appeal to a specific market segment. Women and men care about different things, and you can't address them all effectively in one ad."
According to Dr. Michael Bernacchi, professor of marketing at the University of Detroit, the issue isn't Toyota's use of gender-neutral ads. After all, he said, "in Toyota ads, the focus is always on the car, not the people. But the real work needs to be done at the dealership level. Nobody likes to buy a car — it's a heinous experience — least of all women. Toyota has these extraordinary vehicles, but that quality message doesn't carry through to the dealership."
Dealerships: Dealmakers or Breakers? Indeed, no matter how appealing a company's cars are, a customer's perceptions of an automaker will be most directly affected by their experience at the dealership.
In J.D. Power and Associates' 2004 Customer Service Index (CSI) Study, Toyota ranked below the industry average in terms of customer satisfaction with dealership service departments.
"Women are better car buyers than men," said Bernacchi. "They're smarter and more astute, and they should be treated and catered to as such."
In a recent survey of 500 female customers from six Chicago-area Toyota dealerships, Toyota found that women are much more loyal than men to dealerships where they feel they've been treated right, and are quicker to abandon dealerships where they feel they've been treated poorly.
The survey's most surprising finding, according to Greg Kitzens, corporate manager of the Toyota college of dealer education and development, "was that 76 percent of the women surveyed said they brought someone with them [90 percent of whom were male] when they went shopping for a car. Why? Because they thought having a man with them would increase their chances of getting a better deal.
"This tells us that women are intimidated by dealerships. So we stress that our salespeople should address the male and female equally; never turn all of their attention to the man, even if he's asking all the questions, when it's the woman who's buying the car.
"Our findings reinforce what we've been telling dealerships all along — to treat all customers, male and female alike, with the same courtesy and respect. Women especially want to feel listened to; they tend to ask more questions than men, and they want more thorough answers."
The dealership facility also plays a key role in customer perceptions.
"Customers place a great deal of importance on the cleanliness and comfort of a dealership," said Nancy Davies, Toyota's vice president of retail market development.
To this end, Toyota recently launched "Image USA II," a program aimed at upgrading dealership exteriors and interiors, with special emphasis on customer "touch points."
"The idea is to have every aspect of the facility focused on the customer," Davies adds. "We recommend every dealer provide a children's play area in the showroom and a coffee bar in the service area for waiting customers. We also encourage dealers to upgrade their restroom facilities. Focus groups reveal that many customers, especially women, judge a dealership on the cleanliness of its restrooms."
Of course, how much of Toyota's philosophy, training and recommendations are actually incorporated into each dealership will vary from location to location.
Attesting to this fact is Dawn Carrington of Granite Bay, California, who said she received excellent treatment at three Northern California Toyota dealerships and horrible treatment at another.
"Three of the dealerships were outstanding," she said. "The people were very friendly and courteous, and I would recommend them to anyone.
"Then a few years ago I was shopping for a Land Cruiser and took a test-drive at a Toyota dealership in San Jose. After the test-drive, the salesman said, 'OK, let's do this deal,' and I said, 'I'm not sure I'm ready to make a decision.' And he actually took the keys to my car and threw them across the desk and said, 'You are wasting my time.'
"I was flabbergasted. I told the manager I wouldn't so much as get my car washed at that dealership. He started to chase me to the parking lot, but I said, 'Don't bother.'"
Corporate Grassroots Support Outside the dealership, on a corporate level, Toyota USA supports several programs that benefit women's causes.
For the past six years, Toyota USA has sponsored and participated in the Revlon Run/Walk for Women, Los Angeles' largest fundraiser for women's cancer research. Toyota pays its employees' entry fees and provides matching funds. Last year Toyota's 6,120-member team raised $173,797 — the largest amount ever raised by one team in the event's 11-year history.
Toyota also sponsors and participates in the California Governor's Conference on Women and Families, an annual event featuring high-profile speakers and workshops on topics ranging from "How to Balance Family and Career" to "How to Start Your Own Business." Speakers at last year's conference included Maria Shriver, Queen Noor of Jordan, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and two Toyota female group vice presidents. More than 130 Toyota employees and guests attended the event.
In addition to women-focused programs, Toyota supports children's safety campaigns, such as SafetyBeltSafe, a national non-profit organization dedicated to child passenger safety.
Women at Toyota: Not Exactly the Fast Lane While Toyota espouses "moving forward" in its ad campaigns, how actively does it encourage women within its own ranks to move up to leadership positions?
The answer, partly, is in the numbers. At Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California, women hold 21 of the 77 upper-management positions (corporate manager level or above); men hold 56. Unlike several other major automakers, Toyota has never appointed a woman to head a division.
As is the case industry-wide, women Toyota dealers are in the minority. Of the 1,462 Toyota and Lexus dealerships operating in the U.S., only 38 — 2.6 percent — are wholly owned by women. Women have a financial interest in another 166 dealerships (for a total of 13/9%).
Moving Forward Slowly While Toyota has long sought women's input on vehicle design, it is just beginning to address their treatment at the most crucial contact point of all — the dealership. And while the company has shown increasing support of women and women's causes, it lags in terms of acknowledging women's importance as decision makers within its own ranks. The Japanese transplant is making steady progress, but it still has miles to go.
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