By on September 29, 2021

Toyota was very focused on youthful consumer appeal at the turn of the millennium. Around the same time the WiLL sub-brand launched in the Japanese home market with its multitude of different products, a similar project was just getting underway at Toyota Motor Sales USA.

It was called Project Genesis, and like WiLL, it didn’t go well.

Project Genesis was a task force established by two of the top brass at Toyota USA in 1999. President Yoshimi Inaba and company COO James Press had a great idea for three exciting new cars about to arrive at North American Toyota dealers.

The cars in question were the seventh generation Celica, the third-gen MR2, and the new ECHO. All three cars entered production late in 1999 for the 2000 model year, and while customers were already familiar with the sporty Celica and MR2, the ECHO was a 2000 replacement for the dearly departed Tercel. Tercel ran through the ’98 model year if you can believe it.

Toyota USA knew these new cars appealed to their youngest customers, and the plan for them was simple: Market all three as their own sub-brand within Toyota dealers in the US. The plan extended to the Japanese dealership network as well, which is a more complicated setup than is used in North America.

Celica, MR2, and ECHO (Platz in Japan) were to be bundled together in print advertisements and use a different marketing strategy than the rest of the Toyota lineup. Affordability, fuel economy, and being so cool with techno music were all features of the ad campaigns, as seen here. For whatever reason, no one has memorialized a 2000s US market MR2 ad on YouTube.

Did the advertising work? Did younger buyers flock to the three new Toyotas with their targeted commercials and sub-brand print materials? No, not really. The most successful product of the group with younger consumers was the Celica. It was more well-rounded than the too costly, too small MR2, and the too economical and goofy-looking ECHO. Much like other economy cars that were supposed to be “fun” and “cool,” older people bought the ECHO (usually in silver or beige) and then drove it very slowly around town.

There were other problems with the Genesis sub-branding, too. Other than posing the three cars together in ads, the project had no say in product decisions, and a limited budget. All the product development for the three “sub-brand” cars was finished long before Project Genesis was created. Even with ads like the (extreme cringe) above, the marketing efforts of Project Genesis never made much headway. But they did have their own website, isthistoyota.com. That address now routes directly to the main Toyota USA site.

Genesis wasn’t working, and the management at Toyota was ready to bail. So they did, quickly. The top two Genesis managers were reassigned by mid-February of 2000. Toyota changed all its marketing for 2001 (see headline image above) and went in a more serious, non-grouped direction. Other employees on the project were shuffled around too, and Genesis was officially ended in 2001 by the announcement of Project Exodus. Exodus had a better-known commercial name: Scion. Toyota USA would take the lessons learned during the brief Project Genesis marketing work and apply it to the Scion brand, which would surely be successful for many decades.

[Images: Toyota]

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13 Comments on “Abandoned History: Project Genesis, Toyota Cars for Young People...”


  • avatar
    ajla

    In 2000 I probably would have bought a Grand Prix but the Celica GTS was a cool car.

  • avatar
    B-BodyBuick84

    Why is it that consistently for the last 20 or so years, cars aimed at the ‘youth market’ have mostly failed and been bought by a consumer base of older buyers? The Toyota Echo, the Kia Soul, Buick Verano, the Scion TC coupe and xB hatchback/ crossover, the Chevy Trax and Buick Encore, and Dodge Dart are just the ones that come to mind right now, I’m sure there are more examples. I can understand why younger people don’t flock to them- not enough funds, they’re probably buying used, maybe off-lease with a bit of warranty left or maybe something older from places like craigslist or facebook marketplace. But why consistently older people? Is the the youthful image they think they’ll get driving them around, or just a sense of practicality,
    “Why buy the Corolla when the Echo is cheaper, has better mileage, ease of egress, and is easier to park?”

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Was the tC was mostly bought by old people? Toyota claimed it had youngest owner age of any vehicle.

      pressroom.toyota.com/scion-transition-toyota

      The 1st gen xB is the one that got the “old people love them!” reputation. I’m not sure what the the demographics were on the other Scion models, but they didn’t sell in high numbers anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        B-BodyBuick84

        I genuinely don’t know the numbers, but I distinctly remember when these came out, and almost all the driver’s appeared middle-aged at the least. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t remember seeing many of these driven by the younger age bracket.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      I believe these did well with this demographic because older people are generally money conscious and may not want to spend big money for a car unless they’re well-off.

      If you add a low-ish base price, inoffensive looks and good fuel economy to Toyota reliability then you have a winner among this demographic.
      Most other cars you mentioned were also generally dependable and/or low MSRP

    • 0 avatar
      DungBeetle62

      This’ll become ever more an issue as prices continue to increase, but the “youth market” who can afford a new car is shrinking.

      You almost need to find something aimed at an older demographic who can afford to buy it new and hope it appeals to the youth market after it gets traded in.

      At the time of these cars I was finally about to make my first new-car purchase (early 30s) – Celica vs. Prelude. Toyota didn’t stand a chance.

  • avatar

    The Celica and TC both sold well to younger groups. The TC tended to lean heavily female and more into their 30’to 40’s (per a former Scion dealer in my town) but still well under average new car buyer ages. Where you run into the older buyers is when you add practicality and affordability in together, add a dose of reliability with Toyota and you get older buyers.
    Honestly I don’t know a ton of people in their 20’s and 30’s who buy new cars, but those that do seem to break into two categories. I just want a car, these people go for Honda Civics, Hyundai Elantras, and Corollas, maybe an Escape or RAV4 if they want the SUV thing , (lots of people in this group when I worked for an insurance company). Then you have the people that stretch to get what they want or have higher incomes, they seem to like much the same cars as the middle age populace Trucks, SUV’s and the occasional sports sedan.

    • 0 avatar
      statikboy

      “I just want a car” I would argue that ~1999-2000 most people in this camp were buying Cavaliers and Sunfires.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      My brother bought a Celica GT when he was 28 years old. Fantastic car. I had a truck at the time so, when he needed to haul anything, I got to drive a new Celica GT. It was a brilliant car in the city – point and squirt – with a great shifter feel.

  • avatar
    sckid213

    I was in high school in 1999-2000 and remember this campaign vividly, even the “is this toyota” web address. It was all over the car mags at the time.

    I find it interesting that Toyota was worried about its image with youth as long ago as the late ’90s. Not an invalid concern I suppose.

    I personally thought all 3 Genesis vehicles had sub-par interiors. Which for Toyota in the ’90s was a disappointment because people were used to the fat interiors of the 1994 Camry and LS400. These Genesis vehicles came out just as Toyota was starting to cheap out interiors, and it really showed in all 3. Not impressive, even to a high schooler.

    I remember a girl at my high school from a die-hard family Toyota got the first Echo I ever saw. Tall, tippy, dorky, and cheap silly interior. Celica was the vehicle with the most promise; checked one out at a dealer and was not impressed by the all-hard plastic interior and rock-hard center armrest. I had a 1999 Cougar at the time, and the Celica interior quality was truly no better. And I thought the Cougar wore the wedge styling better.

    I also vividly remember the intro of Scion and what a potentially big deal it was at the time. The initial Scion vehicles seemed more in-line with a true youth brand, but they screwed it by “normalizing” the second-gen Scion vehicles (ESPECIALLY xB). Reminds me of when GM “normalized” Saturn. Same effect: brand death.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Saturn was DOA long before restyling in MY96, it was a movement without a patron. I’m not sure if Scion’s death knell was styling/marketing or not but that sounds more likely than Saturn’s two decade drama.

      • 0 avatar

        I think it was the stylistic normalizing, but also a culture shift away from the “factory custom for young people” thing. The tacky neon, big stereo, stick-on plastic West Coast Customs vibe faded away by what, 2008? Replaced by JDM yo and brodozers?

  • avatar
    stuart

    My daughter had an Echo, with a 5-speed. “Economical and goofy-looking” fairly characterizes the car; I’d add “tippy” if driven with any vigor.
    The gearshift felt like you were stirring a bucket of TinkerToys™, the car lacked a temp gauge, and “tinny” captures the noise level.
    But it was easy to work on, the seats were O.K., even on long drives, and the A/C worked pretty well. Honestly, the car was a “cockroach,” and I mean that as a compliment: ugly, un-loved, and almost un-killable.
    We would still have it, but it was crushed by an over-eager pickup.

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