Toyota's big problem with gas pedals is trouble for suppliers to the company, too.
Tires, hose, belts, sealing, all the items that reduce or eliminate noise, vibration and harshness in vehicles—you name it, there's still a lot of elastomer products in Toyota's cars. Any company that supplies the world's largest auto maker suffered when millions of Toyotas were recalled, and production was suspended at plants while a fix for the out-of-control accelerators was pursued.
It's a headache that is expected to cost Toyota a billion dollars, all told. But that's not the worst of it—Toyota, renown for its quality, now has a tarnished reputation. How the Japanese firm ultimately solves its problem will determine the long-term impact on the auto maker and anyone who counts on doing business with the company.
It's a truism that reputations take a long time to create and can be lost in a blink of an eye. Celebrities like athletes, actors and politicians show that all the time. It's an American trait to hero-worship such people to a ridiculous level, then engage in overkill when they stray.
At least with people, the chance for public “rehabilitation” of a fallen celebrity is quite possible and very common. Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Bill Clinton are just a few examples. Given some time and penance, Tiger Woods certainly will be back.
Maybe because celebrities are human, we as humans will forgive and forget, especially if the wayward hero wins some championships or Oscars or turns out new popular songs. When a company's reputation is damaged, its restoration isn't so easy.
Despite what the U.S. Supreme Court says, the public does not view a corporation as a person. Forgiveness isn't a given.
Firestone is the best rubber industry example of the impact of a soiled reputation. And I'm not talking about the ATX/Wilderness tires debacle, either à I'm referring to the Firestone 500 radial tire.
Firestone, big, proud and independent, turned out the 500 as its first radial to counter Michelin's market-stealing innovation. Problems with the tire ensued, and Firestone went to war with the media, consumer advocates, NHTSA—any entity that cast aspirations on its good name.
Firestone lost. A massive recall was only one aspect of its defeat. The company declined, shrunk and eventually was sold to Bridgestone.
It took a long time for Bridgestone to succeed in getting the luster restored to the Firestone name. Then disaster struck again, with the Ford Explorer-Firestone SUV tire failures.
Bridgestone took on that problem head-on. It didn't make excuses; it took responsibility; it paid dearly for its part in the calamity.
Today Bridgestone has a solid reputation, and the Firestone brand lives on.
Bridgestone's action is the template for how Toyota can recover its good name.
Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News.