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Toyota heir takes center stage in drive to shed 'boring' tag

Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda speaks during an unveiling of the company's remodeled Crown luxury sedan in Tokyo in this December 2
Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda speaks during an unveiling of the company's remodeled Crown luxury sedan in Tokyo in this December 2

By Yoko Kubota

NAGOYA, Japan (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> executives have sometimes seemed to share the personality of the automaker's best-selling cars - dependable and efficient, but also a bit boring and bland.

That's changing. In recent months, Toyota founding family scion and President Akio Toyoda has emerged from the bureaucratic shadows to present himself as the company's car-loving, fashion-forward salesman-in-chief.

The marketing campaign aides have built around Toyoda is an unconventional move for a Japanese corporate icon where team play is prized above outsized personalities.

In recent weeks, Toyoda has donned a race suit to drive the Lexus LFA super car at the 24-hour race in Germany's Nuerburgring circuit and turned up at a Lexus party in New York with a hipster bow-tie and retro glasses.

Meanwhile his assistants have kept a steady newsfeed on the "Toyota President's Office" Facebook page, which Toyoda was inspired to set up by the popularity of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's page.

"I am at the top of Toyota and drive cars myself," Toyoda told reporters at an event in May when discussing the role he can play in to promote and develop the Lexus brand, which he has been directly overseeing since April. "I was also born with this name."

Toyota, which marked its 75th anniversary last year, for decades let its product speak for itself by building value-priced cars with bulletproof quality.

CELEBRITY BOSSES

In an industry with more than its fair share of celebrity CEOs comfortable with the limelight, such as Chrysler's Lee Iacocca and Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> and Renault SA's Carlos Ghosn, at Toyota the real star has always been the "Toyota Way" -- the production and management philosophy passed down from one generation to next from founder Kiichiro Toyoda.

But as rivals from General Motors Co to Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> to Volkswagen AG have narrowed the quality gap, the Japanese automaker has been forced to respond.

In a J.D. Power & Associates survey of initial quality released in June -- the benchmark for the industry -- General Motors finished ahead of Toyota, highlighting the increased challenge for the one-time quality king.

To push back, Toyota has been trying to make its cars more stylish. To shake up its slow decision-making process, it has split the carmaker's operations into four business teams and named non-Japanese to head regional operations in some areas.

It is also trying to bring a new edginess to its brand image and design. That strategy has put the spotlight on the 57-year-old Toyoda, according to people involved in the effort.

It marks an unlikely, mid-career emergence for Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, who just a few years ago was blogging under a pseudonym.

"One of the main things he is doing is giving Toyota, the company, a personality," said Julie Hamp, Toyota Motor North America's Group Vice President in charge of communications.

"He knows that Toyota needs a story and products to fire the emotions and to ground our identity in new realities today, which is a more competitive environment."

Toyota declined to make Toyoda available for an interview. He and six executive vice presidents are set to speak to the media on Monday.

What pushed Toyoda to embrace a radical corporate image makeover was a series of recall crises that hit the automaker in 2009, a senior Toyota executive said. Toyota recalled millions of vehicles globally because of problems including a glitch in the accelerator and floormat design.

SHIFTING GEARS

The company's response to the crisis was slow and, most damagingly, Toyoda failed to speak up for the company. After weeks out of the spotlight, Toyoda, who had only been in the top job for eight months, called a news conference in Nagoya to apologize, but struggled to provide an English soundbite.

When Toyoda was grilled by a U.S. congressional committee in February 2010, the experience was scarring, people knowledgeable about his thinking have said. It left him convinced the company had to change its approach to communication.

Until then, Toyoda had seemed uncomfortable with reporters, only lighting up when talking about his great grandfather's loom design or the principles of Toyota's quality control, and he remained reluctant to put himself in the spotlight.

To give him a nudge, the senior Toyota executive said, Toyota designers prepared a kind of mock fashion magazine for their boss, featuring scenes with stylishly dressed male models all with Toyoda's head superimposed on the image.

The idea was that Toyoda could be the star salesman if he could represent the brand and improve its image with edgy fashion at certain events.

Toyoda first balked at the idea, but has since warmed to the role. In April, he took stage with a new look -- retro glasses, hip bowtie -- at the design-themed event for the luxury Lexus brand held in New York.

"The image of Toyota might have been that it is massive and hard to approach, especially those executives at the top who run the company - they are out of reach, above the clouds," the senior executive said. "That might have been the case in the past, but now that's no longer true."

(Additional reporting by Kentaro Sugiyama; Editing by Norihiko Shirouzu, Kevin Krolicki and Alex Richardson)

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