Frankfurt reflection #3: Toyota – market leaders playing catch-up

The Frankfurt show was the moment when electric vehicles not only moved into the mainstream of the displays, but when they became the stars. Everyone had some kind of EV to show, and it was clear that the technology can be used equally well for economy and performance. BMW covered both angles by using the i3 as shuttles displaying and its production i8 big brother, which has been conceived around the performance and handling advantages of electric motors. A big slam dunk for the Germans.

Frankfurt - YarisAll of which was bad news for Toyota. Its Prius pioneered hybrids, which most people agree present the immediate way forward for EV technology, but it does not enjoy the recognition it deserves. The stats are remarkable: 5.5m Toyota and Lexus hybrids sold to date, resulting in savings of 37m tonnes of CO2 and 13bn litres of fuel. It’s now selling 1m hybrids a year and will launch 15 new hybrid models by 2015, so the stats will accelerate.

So Toyota owns this territory, yet it’s playing PR catch-up with companies whose EVs have only recently begun to surface – not just BMW but VW, Mercedes, Renault and others. I was in PR at Toyota in the 1990s and was constantly frustrated at the lack of recognition in Japan of valuable brand messages, how easy it was to uncover PR nuggets yet how difficult it was to use them.

In Frankfurt Toyota showed a high-performance hybrid concept of its Yaris supermini and gave its entire stand over to hybrids. The next few years belong to Toyota, but it will need to give its PR and marketing people as much credibility as its engineers if it is to take the high ground it’s already scaled in technical terms.

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