Why Toyota, the Car Company, Now Wants to Be Known More as a ‘Mobility’ Company

New campaign signals critical shift in positioning

Toyota's iBOT personal mobility platform stars in a new spot from the legendary automaker. Toyota
Headshot of Robert Klara

Toyota sold just shy of 2.5 million vehicles in America last year, making the 80-year-old company the sales leader for the fifth year in a row among automotive brands.

There’s just one thing: Toyota isn’t an automotive brand. Not anymore, anyway.

“The vision for the company is to communicate a brand shift from vehicles to overall mobility.”
Chris Schultz, gm for Olympic-Paralympic marketing, Toyota

With the kickoff of its “Start Your Impossible” campaign earlier this month, the Japanese automaker has put the world on notice that it is now a mobility company, a brand whose products obviously include cars but one busy broadening its offerings to a wide variety of futuristic devices, often with built-in digital capabilities, that enable human motion in ways that go well beyond driving down the road.

Several of these products (not yet on the market, though vaguely promised at some point in the future) notably include a number of devices specifically engineered to assist people with a range of physical disabilities to become fully ambulatory.

In an apparent sign of just how committed Toyota is to its new mobility positioning, the company has entered into an eight-year partnership with the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, both of which have contributed athletes to star in a new Toyota ad. (Watch it below.) A broad array of supporting creative material, from a new website to social-media efforts, will further cement Toyota’s new messaging and market orientation.

“The vision for the company is to communicate a brand shift from vehicles to overall mobility,” Chris Schultz, Toyota’s gm for Olympic-Paralympic marketing, confirmed. The “Start Your Impossible” campaign, he added, is “more than a campaign.”

“This is a way of thinking as we move forward of how we want to be viewed as a company,” he said.

For now, people can view the new Toyota in a spot called “Mobility for All,” an inspiring 60 seconds (there’s also a two-minute version) created by the Los Angeles and Dallas offices of Saatch & Saatchi and Dentsu, Tokyo. Shot on five continents and edited down from 736 hours of film, the ad—a “tribute to motion,” the company says—portrays real-life, variously abled people, including noted Olympic and Paralympic athletes, using an array of admittedly far-out-looking Toyota products that help them do everything from competing on track and field to simply getting around and living their daily lives with ease and dignity.

As Saatchi executive creative director Fabio Costa explained, Toyota actually compiled 100 different stories. Only a few made the cut in the first spot, but the deep trove of material will be tapped for other parts of the campaign, including a documentary series and a range of digital, social, print and out-of-home efforts. (Nine additional spots are slated for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games alone.) Regardless of the medium, however, the mandate was that all of the creative material feature true stories about actual people.

“We thought this would be a great platform to juxtapose human stories with the up-and-coming products Toyota was about to launch,” Costa said. “Toyota is bringing to the surface the technologies of advancement. They’re high tech, but deep down, the essence in which each one was made is to help people move.”

And indeed, the human stories here are inspiring. As a wheelchair-bound man plays basketball and a century-old marathoner bolts down the track, a velvety-voiced narrator assures viewers, “We have a vision—to make movement better for everyone, to give everyone the same chance and the same hope to be their very best. Because when we’re free to move, anything is possible.”

At the same time, the obvious intent here isn’t just to spotlight people, but also an array of eye-popping, futuristic devices. Not coincidentally, these are products that not only facilitate movement but, in many cases, boast integrated digital capabilities—an apparent signal that Toyota is keen to position itself not only as a broader solution to the challenges of movement, but also as a brand keeping pace with the increasingly digitized world to come.

For example, in addition to showcasing devices like the Human Support Robot (an armlike machine that assists the elderly with everyday activities at home) and a wearable robotic leg brace, the campaign features machines such as the iBOT, a “modular personal mobility platform” that uses gyroscopes and “sophisticated sensors” to keep the wheeled chair in balance. There’s also the i-TRIL electric vehicle with “active lean technology,” and a concept car called the CONCEPT-i that boasts an onboard AI system that promises to “create a new relationship between people and cars.”

None of these products happens to be for sale yet, but according to Schultz, that fact is beside the point.

“There really is no connection to these products being for sale at any given time in the future,” he said. Instead, the purpose of the spot and the broader campaign is to “display Toyota’s way of thinking around innovation and trying to solve problems [for people who] may have difficulties with mobility.”

Even so, it’s these cutting-edge contraptions emerging from research and development that are allowing Toyota to credibly broaden its brand identity in the first place. Moreover, according to industry watchers, it’s a worthy strategy. As the traditional definition of a motor vehicle blurs and digital technology continues to integrate itself into every aspect of daily life, including the much-anticipated coming of cars equipped to drive themselves, Toyota is doing the right thing by moving into a broader definition of its mission now, said Hayes Roth, founder of marketing consulting firm HA Roth Consulting.

“The concept makes total sense to me,” Roth said. “In a future that is frankly upon us, where cars aren’t going to need drivers, it’s going to be all about the mobility experience. Toyota is pretty smart to move beyond the typical four-wheel cars that all of us know today and to start thinking about where to go with it.”

He added, “They are [already] in the mobility business, and this stake on higher ground will allow them to branch beyond four-wheeled frames with engines into wherever individual transportation takes them next.”

Noted automotive authority and Detroit Bureau founder Paul Eisenstein echoed those points. If predictions are correct that Americans will be moving about in driverless, electric vehicles operated by ride-sharing services, it means “millions of people may stop owning a car or have fewer cars in the household,” Eisenstein said. While the automotive industry works on these developments, he added, “there are other technologies coming out, technologies that can help the handicapped in the home or in public situations.”

Overall, Eisenstein said, while nobody’s sure what the future will bring, it seems clear that we’re moving into a period of “mobility beyond transportation.”

“It makes sense for [Toyota] to be exploiting it,” he said.

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@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.