I recently acquired a new Toyota 4Runner. While admiring its clean lines and snappy red color, I noticed something: nowhere on the exterior of this vehicle does the word Toyota appear. The word 4Runner is displayed prominently, as is the logo icon, but no Toyota.
Curious, I began scouring the interior for that elusive Toyota. The floor mats proudly pronounce that I settle my dirty shoes into a 4Runner. When I start the vehicle, the digital display reminds me that I’ve just fired up a 4Runner. And when I open the back, I know it’s a 4Runner that is carrying my goods. Determined to find the word Toyota someplace, anyplace, I finally found success on the front of the radio. For there, in maybe 16 point type, looking a little forlorn and forgotten was the word I was looking for.
Purely as a study of branding, I found this intriguing. Like the Nike swoosh, the Toyota icon has ascended into the rarefied atmosphere of brand ubiquity, that magical place where words are no longer needed and a symbol says it all. All Nike has to do in their advertising is create an emotionally charged scenario, then pop in the swoosh. You connect the emotion with the swoosh and the emotion to yourself, closing the loop on your personal connection to Nike without ever seeing or hearing the word Nike. It’s powerful stuff.
Yet unlike Nike, Toyota still reminds us of the name that symbol stands for in their advertising, while sub-branding specific models—like the 4Runner—at the point of sale and beyond. The 4Runner product actually predates the current Toyota logo which first appeared on vehicles in 1990. It’s a relatively new symbol and the result of an evolutionary process that really goes back to the company’s inception in 1937. In contrast, Nike has only ever had one logo since the brand was launched in 1971.
In the world of Nike, the Nike brand is supreme, characterized and communicated by the swoosh throughout a diverse product line. Shoes, apparel, golf clubs, eyewear . . . whatever the product, its unique selling proposition is represented by that ubiquitous symbol. Toyota, on the other hand, only sells motor vehicles. But the 4Runner is a much different vehicle than, say, a Prius, with a different selling proposition that appeals to a completely different customer. Thus the 4Runner becomes a brand unto itself, actually subordinating the corporate brand at the “wheels on the ground” level. Interesting stuff to consider if you’re a marketing geek.
Yet . . . the other day a neighbor walked by and stopped to admire my new 4Runner. “Nice vehicle,” she said. “What is it, a Nissan?”