Toyota Preps 'Prius Projects' For Brand Evolution

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This year and next are big for Toyota's Prius brand: 2010 was the 10th anniversary of the Prius; next year Prius for the first time comprise more than one car as the automaker rolls out a second Prius vehicle. Its long-time AOR, Saatchi L.A., has bridged these two events with an ongoing crowd-sourcing, underground, social-media-buzz-machine called "Prius Projects" intended both to presage 2011's brand genesis by getting owners and fans involved in teasing the new car and generally create action around Prius online.

The first "Prius Project" was a "10.10.10" party on -- you guessed it -- Oct. 10, that brought owners reached through Facebook to party at Malibu, Calif., where they each got a piece of a billboard-sized "Prius Puzzle." As part of that event, Saatchi shot and posted a time-lapse video of the attendees each affixing their puzzle piece to the wall.

The resulting billboard -- which was a profile photo of the 2011 model-year Prius partly concealing a larger mystery vehicle parked right behind it -- was the first real shot of the new Prius, and it went right to the Web from a cell phone photo. That video garnered 65,000 views according to Michael Tabtabai, integrated creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi L.A.

"We wanted a fan's cell phone camera picture to be the first of the car that was broadcast to the world," says Tabtabai. "Someone took a shot of it, posted it to Facebook and it was picked up by the media and blogs worldwide. So we had Prius fans unveiling the future of the Prius family. It's all meant to feel authentic and to make people part of the process. That was really the kickoff."

Earlier this month, a Prius Project had people going around Santa Monica, Calif., washing all the Prius cars they could find (with a police officer in tow and owners' permission). Now Toyota has sent a new project skittering across the Web. The video, which went live on Wednesday, has a group of knitting fanatics ("Knitta Please" based in Austin, Tex.) knitting a "Prius Cozy" and dressing the car in the "sweater" with knitted panels, patches and such. As in the earlier efforts, the project is also on an archive site, ToyotaPriusProjects.com, that works like a blog with a timeline of Prius Projects events, and bookmarks teasing projects to come next year.

Tabtabai says starting in January the tone of the campaign will be about the Prius vehicle lineup. "We are going to start talking to more unique groups of people. At this point we are letting it grow organically; as the Prius family gets bigger the Prius projects will be bigger and more diverse, aimed at bringing more people into the Prius family." Another puzzle project, wrapping up this week, involves some 50 Prius fan bloggers, who got the puzzle pieces via mail as "thank you" packages for their having been brand advocates. The puzzle will be virtual, since Toyota asked them to photograph the pieces and put them on their blogs.

The result will be a dashboard reveal that shows the new Prius vehicle's entertainment unit -- which has, among other things, web-streaming capabilities. Another program will demonstrate the vehicle's cargo capacity. "We asked them if they would mind posting their digital puzzle piece somewhere on sites like Facebook or Twitter," says Tabtabai.

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