Once concept, two strategies
Toyota seem to be on to a good thing with their new Facebook app. Anyone who adds it to their profile gets to indulge in a little kiss-kick with the environment – offset your flatulent exhaust pipe by planting trees in needy fire-damaged forests.
Toyota describes it thusly on their blog:
“Using Tree Planter, users gift trees to their friends. For every gift sent to a friend, the Arbor Day Foundation plants a tree in one of eleven needy forests, including Custer National Forest, Hoosier National Forest, and Huron-Manistee National Forest. Many of these forests have suffered devastating effects from recent forest fires.”
This isn’t a new concept, and I’d go as far as to say they stole it from vw.com’s Carbon Neutral Project, which today claims to have planted 227,000 trees, vs. Toyota’s measly 32,000 odd.
What Toyota does have on VW is its approach to the web and online marketing in general. Facebook apps are nothing new, but there is a common-sensical approach in using the platform for their project that appeals to me. Let me contextualise things a little at this point.
The online brand narrative we’ve seen for VW has been an interesting one since they relaunched their flagship US site just over a year ago. VW.com was undoubtedly (and probably still is) an automotive industry benchmark for its slick user experience. We’ve definitely paid a lot of attention to it in our strategy for the new VW.co.za.
Google featured the newly launched site on their search blog. Embarrassingly only a week later they had to public lambast them for using dodgy search engine optimisation techniques to boost themselves up the Google rankings. This was an incongruous rookie error on the part of their web team and demonstrated a basic misunderstanding of how the web works.
When you try to cheat the system in a very public place, someone is gonna notice.
There seems to be a kind of wall that stands between the VW brand and the potential that the online space offers for brand development. This potential demands a certain dismantling of corporate walls that so far, they have not been ready for. Maybe this stems from a perceived vulnerability relating to their 1930’s German roots, I don’t really know and I shouldn’t speculate.
Blogs are nowhere to be seen on any of the VW international sites – contrast this with Toyota’s Open Road blog, with its commitment to operational and customer relations transparency.
This is a shame as VW is often cited as the world’s most loved brand. The immense online communities (none endorsed by VW) that have risen up around the cars stands testimony to this. Just look at the kombi and beetle’s rich pop-cultural heritage.
Clearly this company has had a major social impact on modern society. The Beetle could well be the world’s first example of a culture of mash-ups developing around a product. The users already own a majority stake in the brand, whether the boardroom welcomes that fact or not.
From “What can be done with the Volkswagen Beetle”, on Dark Roasted Blend
You could argue that VW’s brand control-freakery is justified when compared to the successes of a brand like Apple, which shares their need to rigorously police the interface between marketing and customer. But then surely if that is the approach, they need to put a face on things and be a bit more Steve Jobs charismatic in their modus operandi.
Anyway, I digress. This paradigm of openness vs. over-protectiveness is echoed in Toyota and VW’s approach to carbon offsets.
VW’s slick Carbon Neutral Project exists in a content silo on their site. Its probably not a very well know feature, because it sits behind their own tightly brand-managed walls, and is offered only to VW drivers as a kind of add-on conscience cleansing service.
Compare this to Toyota’s approach:
1. They’ve recognised the broad appeal of what they’re doing, and have based the initiative within the biggest possible network in order to achieve their “goal” of 1000,000 trees planted.
2. First 50,000 trees are free – tacit recognition of the fact that you need a healthy viral co-efficient on Facebook to kickstart any application’s uptake. They are going to get up to VW’s 12 month tally of 230,000 in no time at all, mark my words.
3. They have not bothered to burden this initiative with heavy branding – they know that tree huggers do not associate automotive brands with environmental activism.
4. They have partnered with a more appropriate brand that matches the project perfectly – The Arbor Day Foundation.
5. The Toyota initiative has a more social dynamic – its about giving a gift to a friend, not just planting a tree for the benefit of your own smog-riddled conscience.
6. This bridges the gap between on and offline. Trees help the world to breathe, but in the world of web 2.0, value is created through social interaction.
In closing I should probably mention that I found out about this Toyota initiative because Kevin Rose, who owns Digg, plugged it on Twitter this morning as his Facebook app of the moment. That kind of mention is nothing short of online marketing gold.
It’s less well represented online than the two projects above, but sounds truly massive in scale. They are calling the area a “carbon sink” – the term given to large areas of the planet that turn CO2 back into oxygen.
Filed under: Digital Marketing on May 8th, 2008