Scion Balances Edgy Image with ‘Value’

Since its launch in 2002, Scion has been something of an experiment for Toyota. The youth-skewing brand has used everything from graffiti to metal music to get its name out. But now that auto sales have fallen off the cliff, Scion may be altering its approach. Kimberley Gardiner, Scion’s national marketing and communications manager, said the brand will be making more of a value pitch to consumers. One argument, for instance, is that because Scions are so customizable, there’s no need to buy a new car after a few years—all you have to do is retool your old one. That’s not to say Scion ads will be a conventional pitch. Scion “Samples” ads, which are rolling out this month via Attik, San Francisco, feature fun-house images of Scions being “sampled” in short snatches and extend the brand’s “United by Individuality” campaign. Gardiner discussed how Scion will balance the two messages. Here are some excerpts:

Why do you think the individuality theme resonates so much with Gen Y?

Kimberley Gardiner: This is probably more of my take because I like to approach things from a psychological viewpoint and see what’s going on in consumers’ minds, but I think that with a lot of negative news and with consumer confidence being poor right now and not a lot of bright spots out there that the ‘individuality’ message taps into that creativity that is within us and within a lot of young people. It gives them a little bit—and this may sound corny, but—it gives them a little control and a sense that they can still stand out and be unique, but do it in a way that’s right for them in that moment.

BW: Is your target market particularly tough now because they are less apt to get credit?
KG: Yeah, we’re certainly seeing that and like all of the rest of the marketplace at the moment access to credit is something that we’re all concerned about. We’re certainly seeing that moreso at the younger end of the market. I think that generally what consumers are looking for and even moreso at this age is a good value story. What we’re seeing is it’s less about ‘What can I get now?’ than ‘What will last in the longer term?’

. . . I think that goes back to the individuality proposition. You can take something like a tC [a Scion compact that’s seen as a successor to the discontinued Celica]. You can ‘refresh’ it, so to speak. You don’t necessarily have to buy a whole new model if you’ve had it for a few years. Maybe you’ll look at accessories. Maybe you’ll look at other ways you can customize your car and be who you are but at the same time be very value-conscious.

BW: Scion has been known for its experimental forms of marketing. With the way car sales are now, are you getting pressure to be less experimental?
KG: I think that the entire industry and Toyota, Scion, Lexus are being asked to be really diligent about how we spend our money. To make sure that what we’re doing is something that’s really going to resonate with the end customer. The pressure I’d say is really there from a competitive standpoint to have that value proposition, to have a real reason for a consumer to come in and take a look at your vehicle. It’s definitely challenging. No doubt about it. We just had a team meeting where we talked about the market in 2009 and it’s not as rosy as we’d like it to be, but Scion is in a unique position—we’re still very much a brand-focused organization within the Toyota family. Even the ‘United by Individuality’ campaign and now the ‘Samples’ campaign—they’re still trying to communicate the core message of the brand.

We’re being stretched and rightly so, we’re being asked to create more opportunities to improve traffic to dealerships. So you’ll see in the coming year from our brand about how do we prove the value story? How do we make it a little more model-specific? You’ll see a little bit more of that honing in on some of these messages  to consumers about how to get along further in the purchase cycle and how to make them feel better about the purchase throughout the life cycle. But at the same time because of where we are in the marketplace right now and because we have 2010 looking to be a better year for us and a better time in the industry, management is saying now is the time to stay true to the customized nature of the brand.

BW:  Do you think the Big Three in Detroit have been too conservative in their marketing? It seems like the marketing innovation has come from Japan and Germany.

KG:  It’s difficult to be true to who you are and remain with that focus. I think that no one is immune to the challenges that are out there at the moment. The things that make Toyota strong are the things that are resonating with consumers. They want a product that’s going to last. They want something with a strong value. They want something they can feel good about.

BW: It just seems like you wouldn’t see the kind of marketing around Scion from the Big Three, even in better times. 
KG: Perhaps not. I can’t comment on their strategies, but from our perspective we see Scion as hopefully an inspiration spot for the rest of the marketplace. We’re still so small we’re able to try new things and we’re still able to experiment and push the boundaries a bit, and stay authentic to who we are and stay true to that. 

Are there any brands outside your category that inspire you?

CY: We look at the Apples and Nikes and Red Bulls—brands that even if they’ve grown to a large extent very quickly in the marketplace, they still show they have that core sense of uniqueness and creativity.