The world-wide recall in 2009 of 10 million vehicles across  Toyota’s range must have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but is dwarfed by the long term cost to their brand.

Now, the software blamed by pundits, politicians, sensationalist media, and the generally uninformed, for the accident that killed a family in California sparking the recall, has been cleared.  Toyota comes out blameless, driver and dealer error in supplying the wrong floor mats, and not securing them caused the deaths. 

The TPS disciplines which spawned the “Lean manufacturing” movement that has transformed manufacturing worldwide took over when the furor broke, and Toyota went looking for facts, seeking a “root cause” of the so called “Sudden Unintended Acceleration” problem, and finding nothing, commissioned unimpeachable outside engineers (NASA) to have a look, and predictably, they found nothing either. Meanwhile, the public was blasted by messages undoing 30 years of effort that positioned Toyota as a safe, finely engineered vehicle that would deliver performance and reliability for many years.

Toyota forgot that perception becomes reality, and by allowing the perception of their failure to remain in the market while they exercised TPS disciplines to seek a root cause error, consumers turned away. It will take a very long time, and a lot of effort to undo the damage not of their making.

There is a lesson for all marketers in all this, perception becomes reality, and it is hard to undo, even when the perception is wrong.