By on June 17, 2010

Where would market research companies be without their sugar daddies, the car companies? There is no consumer product that is more expensive than a car, and nowhere is the amount of research money spent by unit sale higher than in the car industry. Research for a new car can be as crude as a few pictures and a questionnaire, or it can be something that is appropriately called a “clinic study,” with customers as lab rats.

All these methods have a flaw: The human factor. Data collected must be aggregated and analyzed by someone. He or she can twist the data however they like. That led to a famous quote by a long deceased former sales director at Volkswagen, who said: “I only believe in research I forged myself.”

Something had to be done, and Toyota is doing it. According to The Nikkei [sub], Toyota “is taking a new tack in car development: listening directly to potential customers rather than relying on market trend data, a move prompted by changing customer preferences.”

What they do is give customers test drives. While they drive, someone in the other seat chats with the driver. That someone in the other seat is an employee of Toyota Marketing Japan Co., a newly established subsidiary and the brainchild of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda. No more sugar daddy. Toyota keeps the sugar in-house.

The car is outfitted with small microphones that pick up casual comments from visitors when they get inside the vehicles. No questionnaires, no clinical environment, no interpretation. Executives get reactions straight from the customer’s mouth.

Says the Nikkei: “This is part of an effort to break the reputation Toyota cars have as lacking excitement. The company is seeking to create “surprise elements” in its new models.”

So maybe, by way of the built-in microphones, we’ll get something else than the blandmobiles that made Toyota infamous and successful. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.

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41 Comments on “Toyotas Tests Ways To Exterminate The Blandmobile...”

  • avatar
    M 1

    Does any car company selling products in the 5-figure range sell anything anyone would actually consider “exciting” any more? We live in the age of over-regulated throw-away transportation appliances.

    Customers are traditionally not all that aware of what they actually want or like. While the data gathered by this effort will probably be very useful, I can’t see it leading to any big changes — and certainly nothing that will “exterminate the blandmobile”.

    Hell, the sad fact is that most people seem to like “blandmobiles”…

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      Some companies make vehicles that aren’t horrible to drive. BMW and Subaru, for example. Toyota seems to be all about making appliances.

    • 0 avatar

      Certainly: Mazda and Porsche come to mind.

    • 0 avatar
      Acc azda atch

      Mazdaspeed3 come to mind.
      The last Mazdaspeed6 come to mind..
      RX8 also comes to mind.. in the top sport edition.. if ya can go to Japan or Europe.. a anniversary one is there

      Removing all elements of SUVS / CUVS / Vans and or barges..

      M5 comes to mind..
      Europe has the M5 Wagon
      M3 is decent.
      Take the 1 series.. and load it up like the 2002ti.

      If ya can stand GM (and I cannot)
      The G8 GXP is a big deal.
      Solstice / Sky in the GXP were decent (If you can stand GM and their b.s badge jobs)

      Impreza WRX STI is decent.. with the hatch if at all possible.
      Evo is decent, even if the company blows ass.
      Legacy Spec B from the last gen is what Id go for, in the wagon (screw the bloated top heavy domestic mass mess.)

      Nissan has the Z in Nismo mode, and the Maxima in the 3.5.. but the Altima was available in the SE-R mode in blue with the stick.

      Honda. No.

      Ford has the Stang.. and has the Focus RS for Europe.

      Porsche always has the 911
      I discount the Cayman / Boxster cause of their lack of point. They both have enough badge an tape jobs to kill me from the press releases. And they both have the same customer driving.

      Their *cough Toureg cough* SUV is gutless
      And the sedan is pointless.

      VW has the GTI or the Scirocco. They also have the Passat or Jetta in a sport model and or a wagon.. (could be possible to get the right color with the right actual sport options.. in the wagon)

      Chrysler.. no.

      I wont even mention Hyun / Kia.

      Toyota.. No.
      Ya dont buy a sporting car from Toyota.

      I can go on..

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      Wow, you guys have a MUCH lower threshold for “exciting” than I do.

    • 0 avatar
      Acc azda atch

      In case you didn’t figure it out..

      Where Im from,
      Exciting MEANS DRIVING. Actually thrashing the car and putting it through its limits.

      SUVs (body on frame) of any make model or year not to mention CUVs (unibody designs) of any make model or year and or cargo capacity aren’t counted!

      GT-Rs, 911Gt3s aren’t counted.
      M45s, A8s, R8s, Sclass 745 – 760IL aren’t counted..
      Maserati’s Lambo’s and or Ferrari’s aren’t counted..

      Ya don’t have fun in one, ya lease it, or you take it out for a weekend for a ride up to a spot.. then worry about the 20g maintenance its going to need with its oil change and belt job (or trade it for its immediate loss of value.)

      The majority of the entire market above 40-50g b.s isn’t counted.
      Ya don’t have FUN driving Audi, Lexus, BMW, MB b.s.

      Just cause you have money.. DOESN’T mean you have taste. Only more money than you know what do to with.

      FUN actually means letting it rip on the highways and byways..
      Not listening to your Barry Manilow in your LS460IL sport.. in bumper traffic.. at 55.
      I’d probably buzz you right by in a Mazdaspeed3 at about 110.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, you did ask, “Does any car company selling products in the 5-figure range sell anything anyone would actually consider ‘exciting’ any more?”

      If we’re now supposed to use your threshold of “exciting,” why don’t you just tell us what kind of excitement you expect for $99,999 or less?

  • avatar

    Hopefully in regards to non-sport Toyota sedans, less bland does not mean tighter seating, less outward visibility and a harsher ride.

    Even if Toyota offered several lines of bare knuckled, mid-engined sport coupes, there would be those enthusiasts who do not want the Camry to exist as a largish, comfortable, serene riding sedan.

    • 0 avatar

      true, but give the Camry better steering feel and dampers that don’t bounce into the sunset at every compression and it would be a “largish, comfortable, serene riding sedan” that isn’t boring and average. It can, and has, been done.

      I think Toyota’s development of actual sports cars would only really help the situation if those same engineers and testers have a critical role in the finishing of the mainstream cars.

    • 0 avatar

      tedward, they do have it. It’s called “GS”.

    • 0 avatar

      right, and at a oh-so reasonable $45+k to boot! Really though, that misses my point, the GS is a completely different type of car.

      I had the Accord and Passat in mind actually. Toyota just falls short and it’s good to see them acknowledge and address this.

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      If Toyota offered even one bare-knuckled, mid-engined sport coupe, then that would be pretty exciting.

      It’s not like the MR2 couldn’t be resurrected and given the Evo / Sti / NISMO / Type-R treatement.

  • avatar

    Another human factor still remains. The person doing the test drive may feel the need to say positive things about the car they are test driving and hide their bad opinions.

  • avatar

    “There is no branded product that is more expensive than a car…”

    Boeing, Airbus, NorthrupGrumman et al. would probably all beg to differ…

    (But consumer product-wise you are right-on!)

    Some comments:
    – wasn’t TMC’s embrace of QFD back in the early ’90’s supposed to accomplish this? What happened?
    – the number of filters and interpretations the customer commentary is subjected to before it reaches the marketplace will determine the success/failure of this initiative;
    – collecting lots o’ info is nice, but if the players have an agenda other than listening to the Voice Of The Customer, or think the customer doesn’t know what he wants or needs, or are just too timid to act on the research data, then TMC will just get more of the same.

  • avatar

    The results that you get from testing of this kind will depend entirely on the pool of consumers that you select. If Toyota draws from its typical cross-section of buyers they are going to hear that consumers want the company to continue offering bland, soulless vehicles. Preaching to the choir in reverse.

  • avatar

    How about a direct line of comunication from people who already own a toyota to the marketing guy? What do you like? What is to be changed? With internet they can chat directly and get info instantly…For instance, i was about to buy a matrix but I went for a vibe, don’t they want to know why? (I told the saleperson why)…

    • 0 avatar
      Tricky Dicky

      Charles – there’s loads of way s the marketing guy can find information about what customers want that just seem easier – databases, surveys etc. Even if you get two potential customers making polar opposite comments about the same vehicle, it can still be very interesting and informative as to why they say it (demographics, region, economic profile etc).

      I suspect that Toyota is a very rational company, with the great majority of decisions being data-driven. But as Bertel points out, data has to be analysed, scoped, interpreted and presented, so what eventually goes before decision-makers often ends up conforming to what the Marketing guy thought it should be in the first place.

      Toyota seems to want to build vehicles that are flawless (some irony), covering the whole scope of requirements set out in those reports. And as a result, they end up with cars that are not particularly bad in any area, yet they singularly fail to be outstanding or noteworthy in any regards.

      So we conclude that they are bland and that their engineering/ designers suck. Actually, it takes a great deal of skill to make something that has no great flaws. What Big-T needs is the balls to make something imperfect and outstanding. Maybe that’s what they’ll hear from the prospective customers?

    • 0 avatar

      I doubt that people who bought a Toyota will have anything more than incremental changes to suggest. Otherwise, they would have bought something else. The people with the best suggestions will be those who looked carefully at a Toyota and rejected it in favor of something else.

      My own suggestion would be to make them drive like BMWs or Audis while maintaining traditional Japanese reliability.

  • avatar

    As a enthusiast, I can’t believe I’m writing this: Somebody needs to make the blandmobiles that the roughly 50% of the car buying public who cares not one whit about cars wants to buy. Make them safe and reliable and it can be a tremendously profitable business model, as Toyota learned to its great benefit.

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree. Sure, Beemers are nice, but there’s a reason they cost more than Toyotas, and most Toyota buyers don’t want to pay a premium for features and engineering that they’ll never need. If Toyota starts building cars engineered (and priced) to BMW standards then Hyundai will eat their lunch.

      I personally would like to see more exciting Toyotas, but considering how successfull they’ve been they should just work out the recent gremlins and call it good.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think this stuff works. Products need CLEAR CONVICTION of a specific stylistic/engineering goal, not nagging voices on tape. If a company’s designers can’t sit down and look at the Camry and understand why it is boring, they need to be fired. Not only is it boring, it’s also ugly. Ditto for every other car in Toyota’s lineup except perhaps the FJ Cruiser and the new Sienna.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d agree with that. Products that are designed by committee and take everyones concerns to heart tend to be the ultimate compromise.
      But then again, I guess that is what a majority of people want; A bit sporty, comfortable, economical, a little bit classy, affordable etc. You can’t design a car which excels at all things.
      I think we’d all agree that the ‘best’ car designs are those – which Amendment X says – are developed by a small group of designers with clear convictions and a clear goal. However I’ll stick my neck out and say that the top sellers are those cars which cater for everyone (ie Toyota’s bland mobiles).

    • 0 avatar
      Amendment X

      Catering to the masses does have its benefit, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I wish automakers (esp. Toyota) could find a way to appeal but also by keeping their designs interesting. This is what American cars used to do in the 1960s.

      I remember thinking in the 1990s how ugly 1980s cars were. Then the 2000s came around and the 1990s were ugly. But looking back, the 1980s and 90s look refreshing to me. The 90s were so conservative, so stoic. Cars no longer have those “lines” they used to have.

      Drove next to an 80’s Olds Ninety Eight this morning. How refreshing! Clean lines! Simple design! Good visibility! Never thought I’d say that about an 80s GM design…

  • avatar

    You know, I’ve gotta say: That is an awesome rat.

  • avatar

    Everything Toyota needs to know can be learned from the 1996 Taurus.

    • 0 avatar

      I assume you’re implying the ’96 Taurus was a failure, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at?

      My contention is that even with the space aged edgy-ness of the ’96 Taurus, it would’ve been a run away hit had the Camry not super sized itself already to compete with the likes of the Taurus. The original ’86 Taurus didn’t really have any Japanese competition in its size class. By 1996 it had Japanese competition and well, quality had to be as good or better.

      Fast forward another 14 years and I’d take the quality of a Fusion right up along the current Camry. As for the fun to drive factor, I’ll take the Fusion over the Camry…Accord too. If anything Toyota should be researching how Ford eliminated their blandmobiles.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

  • avatar

    1) People don’t know what they want.
    2) People don’t buy what they say they want.

    Toyota might as well just try to build more reliable Camry’s and don’t fix something that’s not broken.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed…and Toyota should know it.

      On paper, the 2008 Scion xB was a PERFECT replacement for the wildly-succesful original xB. It was everything consumers said they wanted – larger, less freakish-looking, more powerful…

      …and yet xB2 sales have yet to reach 75% the sales peaks of the original. Despite greater volume and wider distribution.

      So beware of what people SAY they want…

    • 0 avatar

      @wsn & JuniorMint:

      Quite right. As a Gen I xB owner, I’ll never touch the Gen II car.

  • avatar

    Even if the Camry SE was a unique design with daring lines, high output engine, extra firm handling, nearly track ready and sold at a low price, many of you would still be annoyed that Toyota also sold a Camry LE model in it’s current medium soft riding comfort state.

    It’s the same Puritanical gripe against minivans.
    Somehow you are bothered that the majority of mid-size sedan buyers are NOT bothered by the Camry.

    • 0 avatar

      @Fleet:”Even if the Camry SE was a unique design with daring lines, high output engine, extra firm handling, nearly track ready and sold at a low price…”

      Geez, for a moment, I thought you were describing the new Hyundai Sonata…

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think it’s people being annoyed that Toyota makes the Camry, in all of its inoffensive, marshmallowy goodness – it’s that Toyota *isn’t* making the Supras, MR2s, or IS300s any more.

  • avatar
    George B

    I appreciate the Toyota Camry as is, but wish it had lees boost to the power steering and a less floaty ride. I think a better compromise on control feel and handling is possible that would still preserve the big comfortable highway cruiser character of the Camry. What is needed is an experiment to determine this better compromise for a large sample of potential customers. Would be interesting if Toyota engineers could design a test car where steering effort and suspension tuning could be adjusted on the fly to find what potential customers like. These adjustable prototypes could be used to help dial in customer preference.

  • avatar

    I’m reading a book by Susan Scott and I can use a quote from there to describe what the results of these focus groups or clinics really are:”The Complete Guide to the Fricking Obvious”.
    To many it’s still a question why companies still spend large amounts of money now, in 2010, on these ineffective methods. The internet, with all the forums available 24/7 for free, is a huge resource of consumer comments, existing customers, potential customers, brand and model related of independent (like TTAC).
    The internet made the clinics completely irrelevant but companies still use them for a different reason. If a model is not successful in a way or another (like low sales) the clinic report is used as an excuse. The xB case, mentioned by JuniorMint, is the perfect example.
    If engineering is a precise science, design is very subjective and designers have to have a good gut feel. But that’s not all, designers create the design but they don’t approve it, it’s the top management approving it. They also have to have a good gut feel.

    • 0 avatar

      Got news for ya. After 25 years in the automotive business (doing a lot of R&D along the way), I can state that automotive engineering is often neither precise nor a science…

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Locock

      “Engineering is the art of molding materials we don’t wholly understand, into shapes we can’t fully analyze, so as to withstand forces we can’t really assess, in such a way that the community at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance.”

    • 0 avatar

      Greg: great quote! And God forbid the engineers should ever make a mistake, lest they incur the wrath of Congress…

  • avatar

    Toyota should just talk to people who buy Hyundais.

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