Prius and the art of brand maintenance

Prius and the art of brand maintenance

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but it never occurred to me that “Prius” originates from the Latin meaning “to go before” (I took two years of Latin in high school). Apparently, Toyota named it such because they felt they were ahead of the environmental movement. Maybe they should change the name to “Postus” to symbolize how the brand has fallen behind.

The Prius has an interesting history. It’s a statement, not just a car. Back in 2007, after the car had been available for about eight years, CNW Marketing Research found that 57% of Prius buyers bought the car to make a statement about themselves. Hollywood embraced it, as did “Prius Patriots,” conservatives who wanted to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The brand had a built-in, immediately recognizable persona, with strong brand loyalty to go with it.

But Prius saw U.S. sales decline nearly 12% in 2014 compared to 2013, which is a pretty substantial drop. What happened? Well, you could point to lower gas prices as part of the reason. We noted on this blog the falling gas prices that have remained below last October’s prices for more than six months. And now there is more competition, especially with Tesla, which feels like a brand technically superior to (or at least different from) Prius. The competition also includes some traditional cars that now average around 30 mpg, which was not the norm 10 years ago.

But since a main reason people buy the Prius has been to make a statement, maybe less people want to be identified with that persona.

The following would seem to support this notion: Networked Insights has determined, based on a recent social media analysis, that the “brand health” of Prius has dropped by 50%. The analysis found that not only is Prius being left out of online discussions, but that conversations are becoming more negative. In fact, Prius “no longer represents an eco-friendly alternative, but a humorous, weak, and sometimes un-American brand.” Ouch.

There are real, sustainable benefits to driving a Prius, but maybe the public is focusing too much on the perception of the car and not the reality of its benefits. Maybe the statement/persona became more powerful than the car. Or, the recent “Prius for Everyone” ads, which were creative and had a catchy jingle, may actually have sent the wrong message. A Prius is NOT for everyone, just like a Mercedes or a Volkswagen is not for everyone. It is for a select group of people who now don’t feel so special anymore. What’s the use in making a statement if it’s the same statement everyone else is making? Interesting how the sales decline seems to have started sometime after this ad concept started airing.

So what should Toyota do? Well, they could do some research to determine why people view their brand this way, and then they could develop a marketing campaign to combat these perceptions. Maybe focusing back on the persona and reminding people why they would want to align with the brand would work just as well.

But based on the social media audit, some perceive Prius as un-American. Toyota’s first priority should be to fix this perception. Our 2014 Eco Pulse study showed that “manufactured in the USA” is the most important thing a company can do to positively impact purchase decisions. There was talk a few years ago of a Prius manufacturing plant here in the states, but unfortunately Toyota seems to have abandoned that thought, at least for now. Toyota will have to find another way to address this perception.

There is also the question of what to do on social media, since defending your brand can backfire and ignoring comments could continue the misperceptions (or undesired perceptions). This is tricky, and whatever Toyota decides, it should be thoroughly vetted and alternative courses of actions should be planned based on what occurs.

Toyota is rumored to be coming out with a new Prius model in 2016, something sportier. Depending on the final design, it could once again change the persona of the Prius and further confuse – or engage – the public as to what the car stands for.


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Posted on

May 28, 2015

About the Author

Jim Lyza

Jim is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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