Toyota Drags Them All Down?

Automakers who watched for decades as Toyota grabbed market share from them must derive some pleasure from seeing that company twist slowly, slowly in the wind. But The Economist/YouGov polling gives reason to wonder whether the bad news about Toyota is pulling down the reputations of other car companies as well.

As you’d expect, the percentage of respondents voicing a “favorable view” of Toyota has been drifting downward. In a poll released last week and based on fieldwork at the very end of February and beginning of March, 46 percent of respondents said they have a favorable view of the company. That’s down from 56 percent saying so when The Economist/YouGov asked the same question in an early-February survey.

Toyota was not alone in seeing its favorable rating decline, though. With the sole exception of Honda (whose favorable number held steady, at 72 percent in both polls), each of the other automakers tested in both surveys also suffered a downturn, albeit not as steep as Toyota’s. Though it still fared well, Ford’s number in the newer poll is down from its earlier favorable score (69 percent vs. 73 percent). The same is true of Volkswagen, whose favorable score slid from 66 percent in the earlier poll to 63 percent in the newer one. General Motors’ already lackluster score of 54 percent in the earlier poll has given way to an even less robust 50 percent in the newer poll. And Chrysler, which stood (or slouched) at 47 percent in the earlier poll, scored an even-weaker 45 percent this time.

Though none of the declines by companies other than Toyota is steep, it’s telling that all of this movement is in a downward direction. Male respondents were responsible for most of the decline. For instance, while General Motors’ “favorable” vote among female respondents declined by a single percentage point, it dropped by 9 points among the men. Chrysler actually gained two percentage points among women, but lost 6 points among men.

Ford and Volkswagen both lost 3 percentage points among men and women alike. Honda held steady with male and female respondents. As for Toyota, its “favorable” tally dropped by 4 percentage points among women and by 17 points among men.

In a breakdown of the data by income, the “favorable” score declined most conspicuously among respondents in the $100,000-plus bracket. Besides Toyota (which went from 65 percent to 50 percent among respondents at this end of the income scale), the company that suffered most was General Motors. In the earlier poll, 49 percent of the $100,000-plusers rated GM favorably. In the newer poll, 35 percent did so. Ford also took a strong hit among the $100,000-plusers, going from 81 percent to 68 percent. Honda was the one company in the poll to gain ground among these respondents, going from 81 percent to 84 percent.

Rather than conclude that Toyota is uniquely inept, many people may have drawn quite a different lesson from this whole episode — i.e., that if a company with Toyota’s once-golden reputation can botch things so badly, then odds are good that most other automakers are apt to do the same. If that’s the case, maybe those other auto companies ought to be doing some preemptive advertising to shore up their own reputations.