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Oh, what a feeling! Toyota turbo charges chatter with handmade car

I couldn’t help overhearing a young couple behind me as I walked down the street to grab a coffee this week.

“Hey, you know what car I really want? It’s this new Toyota Yaris. I really want to trade in my car to get this thing. I mean, my old Yaris is ok, but this new one is amazing!”

His partner queried with a simple, “why?” Her tone betrayed disbelief. It’s just a newer version of the same car, why should this one be any different?

Well the answer to that is super interesting. But before we get to the twist, the question it begs for us to explore as leaders: what makes your brand, or product du jour different in a sea of sameness?

The motoring industry fights this battle harder than most.

Small city cars are a great case in point. For the average driver, is there really any difference between a Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Suzuki Swift, Honda Jazz or Mazda 2? They’re all a little boring, right?

This isn’t just a marketing problem. It’s not a stretch to say humans are almost completely redundant in modern car manufacturing. Car makers have been refining and automating manufacturing processes ever since Henry Ford changed the world with the production line; through to recently, a joint venture called NUMMI was created in the United States to help General Motors implement lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System.

Wikimedia Commons: Tesla robotic manufacturing

Automation and global collaboration improves quality and efficiency, but there is one unintended consequence: it levels the playing field. The obvious differences between brands start disappearing.

As consumers, we’re all too familiar with this idea. Regardless of brand, modern small cars are so consistently good they’re a bit like kitchen appliances. Give me a good price, a long warranty and enough features like Bluetooth, built-in GPS and automatic adjustable seats and I’ll happily drive it a few years before swapping it out for the next one.

Turns out the Yaris is different

Back to our man on the street. After being queried about why the Yaris mattered, he launched into a little monologue about this new hot hatch. He believed it was “so fast” and just had to have one.

Glancing back as I peeled off into the coffee shop, it wasn’t hard to see his partner didn’t get it. And to be honest, neither did I. The Yaris is one of many equally good options, as listed above.

But then, as serendipity would have it, I stumbled across a story that would change my belief. Drinking yet another coffee at lunch, I stumbled across a YouTube video about the new Toyota GR Yaris via my Facebook feed (eavesdropping again, Siri?).

Here was this curious looking man,👇🏼 Morizo, in a racing suit talking about the GR Yaris. The video was titled, “Message from Morizon for the New GR Yaris.”

Now, I'm a car guy. And even I was asking, who is this guy?

Turns out he's the grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda. 64-year old Morizo's real name is Akio Toyoda, and he's also President of Toyota and the company’s “master driver,” or chief test driver.

Think about that for a moment. Morizo, a name he uses to enter car races with relative obscurity, leads one of the world’s most successful car companies and here he is, literally hands on with the product.

He’s the one who pushes its limits and critiques it in fine detail before it’s permitted to leave the factory.

This is an important example of practical leadership. Sometimes there’s no substitute for a boss who knows the numbers and can offer expert technical insights - particularly in times like these when cars are a commodity and the pandemic has sharpened our focus on value for money.

So, why is the GR Yaris different? Even if you’re not a car person, it’s an interesting story.

The headline is simple: it’s a small car with sharp pricing and a level of performance that’s turning heads. That’s a killer combination in the car world.

The launch campaign surprised even Toyota’s own expectations, with the first 1,000 examples on offer in Australia sold out within a week of going on sale in September at $39,950 drive-away, a $10k discount on full retail.

I’ll spare you all the technical details, which you can read about in this CarAdvice story, but this is no ordinary mobile shopping cart. The GR Yaris is an all-wheel-drive car that shares very few technical components with the previous Yaris. New engine, chassis, and here’s the big deal - it’s hand made.

Master technicians known as ‘Takumi’ assemble the cars away from the robotic conveyors that build other Toyotas. These Takumi are only allowed to build the GR Yaris if they have more than 60,000 hours of car building experience, which CarAdvice estimated is about 26.5 years on the line.

I don’t know about you, but I want a car built by a master technician. It’s instantly evocative, like the Japanese master chefs and craftspeople who inspire wonder around the world.

Study the competition, then go the other way

Watching Morizo talk casually about his creation and the story behind this new car, it suddenly dawned on me. The GR Yaris isn’t just different, it’s disruptive.

“In the past, we tried to be successful in motorsport by taking a production car and adapting it for motorsports,” he explained in his native tongue. “GR Yaris is the very first model to reverse this process. This care was made to win. Motorsport technology is included in the production car.”

For fans of performance cars, like me, that’s a genuine belief moment, as I call it in Beliefonomics. I’ve shifted from disbelief in this car’s uniqueness to the truth of its unique place in the world.

This is a car designed with racing in mind first, then adapted for public roads. Entirely the opposite approach to every other manufacturer.

Motoring journalists got wind of this back in 2019 before its official release, publishing glowing reviews talking up its performance creds and unique story. In fact, a steady stream of earned media coverage fed the word of mouth machine, and the internet’s been buzzing ever since.

What made all the difference for me was Morizo’s smiling insights and truth telling. Toyota’s chief test driver is also, in this video, its chief storyteller.

Morizo explained he involved racing drivers in the GR Yaris development program, he’s personally tested it in multiple locations, and just for fun, he’s done lots of burnouts in the car. Although, don’t call it a burn out. “Please call it art.”

This guy is seriously fun, and this car is seriously different. It was designed differently, developed differently, built differently and marketed differently.

It’s a good lesson in studying the competition, noticing what makes everyone the same, and doing entirely the opposite thing. Make cars by hand, make the boss your chief tester and storyteller, then drop the price to turbo charge the chatter.

It’s worth noting it’s not an entirely new idea. Another famous car maker, Elon Musk, follows a similar strategy. Famous for never advertising Tesla, he apparently has now disbanded its PR department to leave him as the sole spokesperson.

But the real insight is Musk’s belief that ‘great companies are built on great products'. In other words, build cars so remarkable (worthy of remark) that they practically sell themselves.

What stands out from my chance experience on the street, combined with Morizo’s delightful video, is that Toyota is reminding us there’s always an opportunity to break the mould and step away from the competition, or should I say drive away, very fast.

Keep believing,

P.S. Want some homework? What is your counter-narrative? Jot down your answers. What are you doing differently to make someone chat about you on the street? What belief moments are you creating in the marketplace for people like me to discover? You're very welcome to email me your thoughts mark <at> markhjones <dot> net


Mark Jones is a brand strategist, author and keynote speaker on a mission to inspire more leaders about the power of storytelling to change beliefs and behaviour.

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