These are challenging times under any circumstances to become national ad and strategy manager for an automaker. But for Bob Zeinstra, a 10-year veteran of Torrance, Calif.-based Toyota, who was appointed to that post last month, the job might be particularly challenging.
The company is just launching the 4Runner SUV, and will shortly launch the latest Sienna minivan, followed by a new version of its Avalon full-size sedan. Marketing budgets are down across the board, and those vehicles compete in segments that have been especially hard hit by the economy and consumer preference for smaller vehicles and crossovers.
Zeinstra, who was most recently national manager for large cars and van product brand marketing, tells Marketing Daily the key will be efficiency and making sure the message fits the product.
Q: What are your priorities in the new position?
A: My number one priority is getting creative right. And our strategic approach is to get all stakeholders on board before creative development begins. It's honing in on product essence, something that started with the Venza, which really required it because a lot of people in this building were unsure how to categorize it. It was an active boomer mindset, but that was the easy part.
Looking at how to describe it, though, the essence was that we needed to get us all on the same page. We have been using that strategy ever since with 4Runner, and with the recent Corolla work on the diversity side. It galvanizes everyone because it's so easy to get lost in the message, and you don't want the message to change at the 11th hour.
Q: How different is this position from your last job on product management?
A: This is a radical change. Product marketing is managing product; it's working with the chief engineer every day on key product aspects, decisions about packaging, and options, demographic and psychographic trends. It's a real firefight. If a vehicle is not selling as well as it should, my old job would get that question. In this job, I am working with Saatchi, our three diversity agencies, managing all of that and also getting the ultimate product launch.
Q: Are there any similarities?
A: We are about to launch the Sienna minivan followed by Avalon and that means I have a unique opportunity to move over right in the middle of two launches for vehicles I was involved in developing on product management side. You don't get to see that very often.
Q: But won't selling a body-on-frame, mid-size SUV be a tough proposition now? A: Certainly, the numbers are lower than in the past. We were at one time selling 400,000 per year. Pre-Highlander [Toyota's unibody SUV], 4Runner had sales of 10,000 a month. We put our portfolio of vehicles into three tiers: Level three vehicles are generally lower volume than we support marketing-wise with grass roots interactive and print. 4Runner would be tier two this year because it is launching now but probably tier three after that.
Q: Same question for Sienna.
A: The minivan market is the fifth-largest segment, and there are only four major players, so you can have a good slice of that market.
Q: What is your thinking on media strategy for Toyota advertising?
A: First of all, I don't handle that side of things. But that said, value doesn't always come from that initial buy, it comes with extras and integrations that come along with it. An example is our half-time show with "Sunday Night Football," which results from other buys. So we try to be very integrated and value-based on how we buy media. In this market we aren't extending ourselves.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges going forward for you?
A: You can spend money on product-specific messaging, or on brand building. I think understanding how to effectively do that in a value-based way and be consistent is a challenge. Everyone's in that same boat. It's real easy in this economy to go lower funnel.
Aside from that, social media is a big challenge, how to use it effectively and not just push stuff out. Toyota is uniquely set up to capitalize on social media because we want the voice of the customer in how we develop products, campaigns, and decisions.