Get Creative or Die Trying

The Growl that helped launch a brand.

It was early 2004 when I was given the assignment of helping launch the Scion brand for Southeast Toyota Distributors, LLC. Scion was something new and unusual. There were specific facility standards and sales processes that needed to be met for dealers to sell Scions in their stores. Initially, for most dealers, these requirements seemed excessive and inconvenient. They weren’t sold on the Scion business model. This was our challenge. How do we encourage compliance and get better results with a brand our dealers knew nothing about?

As the average age of the Toyota owner continued to rise, Scion’s purpose was to draw a younger demographic into the Toyota family. Toyota knew that millennials didn’t want to drive their mom’s car and their mom’s car was a Toyota. To attract the favorable attention of this younger audience, Toyota needed a new brand, a new identity, cars you wouldn’t catch your parents driving and a new sales process.

To convince our 170+ dealers on the merits of this new brand and the significance of doing things a certain way required massive commitment on our part. The Scion people were a rare group, not like our Toyota audience in any way. To fully understand them, I became one of them.

As the Scion “dude” for our five-state region, I traded my Matrix in for a Scion xB (pictured on left) and began educating myself by reading magazines like Super Street and Modified, and attending car shows from local meet-ups in restaurant parking lots to mega car rallies in places such as Hot Import Nights and NOPI Nationals. I started connecting with people who really got into modifying their cars and joined their car clubs. I needed to know our target audience. What inspires them? What keeps them up at night? What do they read? Where do they hang out?

The dealers spent tens of thousands of dollars on facility requirements and put their salespeople through expensive training classes. They were also required to sell Scions in a no-haggle transparent way, which was in direct conflict with the way most dealers sold their Toyotas… under the same roof. It was an uphill battle. If they did things the Scion way they would end up attracting and keeping new customers in their Toyota family; if they didn’t, they would lose this young customer in a blink of an eye.

Realizing that the general managers of these stores wouldn’t be putting in the same effort I did to understand this fickle audience, we needed a better way to engage them. I began writing a monthly newsletter called the Scion Scene sharing profiles of our enthusiastic owners, results from stores doing things the right way, etc. We also produced a DVD magazine called the Scion Spin with footage of passionate Scion owners talking about their cars and their incredible modifications. We included vignettes of car show events and testimonials from dealers doing things the right way. The constant content from the newsletter and DVDs amplified awareness of this unique segment and the intense enthusiasm Scion owners had for their cars and their community. We also put on massive free events called Scion Exposed, inviting Scion owners to a variety of destinations around the Southeast region where they could fellowship, show off their cars, win awards and make new friends. I was committed to “tightening the tribe,” as Seth Godin would say.

Another Scion Exposed event and the power of the Growl.

The newsletters and DVDs did more than create awareness. They in fact became a promotional tool for the owners themselves. Vendors started providing free modifications to people featured in our news and so it became a real win-win.

Growling with my fellow Scion pals, my son and his class mates at a school event.

I could literally make one phone call anywhere in the country and within minutes have a tribe of Scion owners in their tricked out cars join me at a dealership. This came in handy especially if I was at a dealership that wasn’t convinced of the Scion opportunity. Imagine seeing twenty modified Scions drive up to your parking lot with owners hopping out and sharing their enthusiasm for the brand with you and your staff! It was effective. And it was done through volunteers.

The enthusiasts weren’t paid to help us influence dealers to do things the Scion way. They helped us because they loved what the brand represented and they knew we cared about them. The love was so real between the “tribe” and me, for example, that I was asked by one couple if I would participate in their wedding, the first-ever Scion branded wedding (pictured below), along with about 50 other Scion owners, barefoot on the beach.

Two Scion owners at their Scion wedding on Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.

And another owner showed his appreciation by tattooing the Scion logo on his leg… with my signature on top! Yes, I faxed my signature to him (see below).

True commitment from a loyal Scion owner.

The passion was real. We didn’t wait for the culture to show up, we created it. Once dealers experienced the passionate connection the owners had with the brand, we didn’t have to demand compliance anymore. Dealers started inviting Scion car clubs to engage at their stores; putting on “tuner clinics” and generating excitement, which in turn led to increased sales.

Results

Our region was #1 in Scion sales every month, every year from our launch in February 2004. Buyers were in their twenties; seven out of ten customers were new to the Toyota family. Within three years, more than 50% of our Scion owners traded their cars in for new Scions or new Toyotas.

The formula worked.

With Hachiko, the loyal dog of Japan.

Postscript: We had a rare opportunity to visit Japan, courtesy of Scion, for their 5-year anniversary. Several of us visited the site at Tokyo’s Shibuya Train Station known as the “Hachiko Entrance.” I read about this place three years earlier in Tom Kelley’s excellent book, The Ten Faces of Innovation. This statue was a must visit. Hachiko represents loyalty. I couldn’t help but think about our Scion owners and their loyalty; the ones who hijacked our brand and let me hang on for the ride. What a ride!

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Hey there, I’m Michael, I’m a dad, writer, sales & marketing consultant, recruiter, life-long learner… oh and passionate Growler too. You can learn more about my services by visiting LinkedIn, and crawl into my stories right here on Medium.com.

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