In April 2010, the Toyota Motor Corporation faced a serious crisis. In the previous six months, the Japanese automaker had recalled a reported 8 million defective vehicles and paid recall-related costs that came to total $1.93 billion by the fiscal year's end.
Perhaps most troubling was the fact that US sales had begun to flag significantly, a result no doubt of the damage that the recent recall incidents had caused to Toyota's once Sterling reputation.
Seeking to shore up its image in the minds of American consumers, Toyota undertook a radical new marketing campaign. "We felt that now was the time to be a little creative. We had nothing to lose," said one marketing executive, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak publicly.
"Creative" is putting it mildly. Toyota began planning a vast, coordinated, grass roots marketing campaign focused on, of all things, college football. "We wanted to bring our product to a place that's close to the American heart: college football," said the same executive.
The marketing campaign was launched in August 2010 in 78 US cities. How long did it last?
Malcom Fulbright, 21, senior and starting linebacker at Western Georgia University, describes that memorable day: "Well, we came out to practice and coach tells us that today, rather than hitting the blocking sleds, we were going to hit a 2010 Toyota Highlander. I thought he was joking until I [saw the car] sitting out there on the field."
"I've never tried to tackle a Corolla before," said sophomore Jacob Bulliet at Rysler University in Pinedale, Oregon. "They look small, but man they pack a punch."
Coach Bud Edo at South A&M had his wide receivers race a Toyota Matrix in 20-yard sprints. "If our players can get that kind of burst off the line, we're going to do alright this year."
At St. Sandrieux College in Illinois, the offensive linemen were seen carrying stacks of Toyota wheels and then a 2010 Avalon. "Strangest lifting drill I've ever seen, Toyota wheels and then that Avalon," said a player, "but I didn't think too much about it. I'll carry anything. I just want to make this team."
Planned in secret, the campaign came as a shock to college football league administrators, who quickly amended rule codes to disallow automobiles from participating in practice.
"It generated a lot of positive buzz for our products on the ground," said the Toyota executive. "It showed how tough these cars really are, what they can withstand... And it was a great way to get rid of some extra recall vehicles."