How long does it take for a person or a company to fall from Iconic, invincible, impregnable position to a bottomless pit? Well, ask Tiger Woods about it. Better still ask Toyota.
Tiger and Toyota had the iconic status in their own fields. In public eye they had a Midas Touch. They could do nothing wrong. What happened from Nov 2009 to Feb 2010 would enter history books as the most astonishing reversal of fortunes. There is something remarkably similar about both of them.
For starters, both of them rose to their iconic status riding on meticulous planning, strong performance and painstaking efforts. The world knows the rise of Tiger from the child prodigy to world’s best paid and the most admired athlete. He started playing golf at the age of 2. At the age of 3, he shot a 48 over nine holes in California to the bewilderment of the onlookers and appeared in Golf digest at the age of 5. Golf digest estimates that Tiger would have made about $770 million by 2007 and by 2011 he would cross $1billion of earnings. Phenomenal feat by any standards!!! Toyota started off as an offshoot of Toyoda Loom Works way back in 1930s. The “Toyota Way” puts the customer first and advocates continuous improvement. The company believes in being closer to the customers and building cars that they need. They saw something in American customers’ eyes in 1980s which the local companies failed to see and act on till turn of the century; compact, fuel efficient, reliable and affordable cars. From 1980s where it was selling just 6 models and had a market share of mere 6%, by 2008 Toyota became the largest car company in the world leaving GM behind by miles. Before the financial crisis hit the markets, Toyota was also the most profitable automotive company.
Both of them rose to their position in a remarkably understated fashion. Although, Tiger is considered the most gifted golfer of all times, “caution” forms the core of his game. Wikipedia writes about Tiger Woods “While Woods is considered one of the most charismatic figures in golfing history; his approach is, at its core, cautious. He aims for consistency. Although he is better than any other Tour player when he is in top form, his dominance comes not from regularly posting extremely low rounds, but instead from avoiding bad rounds. He plays fewer tournaments than most professionals (15–21 per year, compared to the typical 25–30), and focuses his efforts on preparing for (and peaking at) the majors and the most prestigious of the other tournaments. His manner off the course is cautious as well, as he carries himself in interviews and public appearances with a carefully controlled demeanor reminiscent of the corporate athlete persona developed between Nike and Michael Jordan.”
Toyota, too, has its own unique style of leading the market. There are no aggressive messages or path breaking styles or out of the world communication messages. The focus is on getting basic things right, understanding customer requirements, producing a product that they need, maintaining the quality, bringing in efficiency to keep the cost low. Simple! There is neither any eagerness to claim the market leader position nor they have any aggressive messages to the competitors. It is also rumored that Toyota could have easily become the no. 1 car maker in the world 1 year earlier (in 2007 against 2008). But they deliberately chose to sell slightly under GM to avoid backlash. Unusual for a leader!
It was this reluctance to claim the top position or showing caution when the victory is insight set these two apart from rest of the world. This added tremendously to their public image and perceptions. They always came across as mature, down to earth yet “gifted” and divine. Success did not get into their heads and they handled rough with the smooth, easily.
There was only one problem. Infidelity was brewing in the center, away from public eye and scrutiny. The relationship that Trust has with Marriage is the same relationship Safety has with Cars. You get only once chance. If broken, it does not exist anymore. What caused infidelity was not a casual affair was a systematic failure of the relationship.
Remarkably, both of them made PR blunders even after the problems were public. For a long time, they just avoided looking at the media in the eye and saying sorry. What the fans and customers heard looked like the tip of the iceberg and they wanted their heroes to come out clean on whatever they knew. Unfortunately, “caution” got in the way and both of them just eluded media scrutiny as long as they could. Soon the wisdom dawned upon them. No sporting icon can be bigger than their fans and cannot shut away sponsors for long. No brand can be bigger than their customers and is answerable to Government on their customers’ safety.
Feb 19th was Tiger’s first media appearance with strings attached: No questions. He profusely apologized for his actions and is behavior but kept his private life still shrouded in mystery. But he made an announcement that the fans and sponsors were waiting to hear. He vowed to come to golf course where he belonged. Coincidently, on the same day Akio Toyoda agreed to appear before US congress to offer “sincere explanation” about the safety issues. This is their desperate attempt to restore the image for not only Toyota but Japan in general.
Toyota is still World’s number 1 car maker and Tiger is still world’s highest paid athlete. Toyota is still way beyond 2nd and 3rd car maker and Tiger’s gross earnings are more than the sum of earnings of next 4 athletes. They would work hard and come out of this crisis. Both of them would go back to their “dharma”, spend some time in spiritual introspection and regain their performance.
Public memory is short. Yet regaining their image, the charisma and the Midas touch would be a different ball game for both of them. They need to communicate their sincere apology for what has happened, not just to the public but to those who matter the most. In Tiger’s case, it is his wife and in case of Toyota it is millions of their loyal customers. This sincere apology won’t come from any PR efforts or nicely drafted apology note, it would come from their actions. Elin and Toyota customer’s would like to watch them for a few more years, work on their shortcomings and overcome them before starting to trust them again. Elin and Loyal customers need to forgive them first before, general public puts them on the pedestal.
Tiger and Toyota, we are your fans! We wish you the best of luck!! Elin and your customers are watching you!!!