Toyota did not set out to create a hybrid car. Rather, the Chairman Eiji Toyoda was concerned about the increasing popularity of larger cars and of the effect it would have on pollution levels in increasingly congested cities. He was concerned about the threat of peak oil looming and believed that the traditional internal combustion engine would not successfully carry Toyota into the next century. It was a year into that effort that Toyota decided to adapt a hybrid approach to creating a car with a lower impact on the environment. Toyota was cautious in entering the American market (Itazaki, 1999).
Toyota's first step was to ship the original Prius that had been sold in the Japanese market beginning in 1997 to the U.S. These Prius' were right hand driving models as no left hand models had yet been produced. The car was shown to potential customers in Southern California who complained that the interior seemed cheap, the rear seats could not fold down, and it was not even possible to fit a baby stroller in the trunk (Taylor, 2006). Toyota quickly learned that their first Prius was a poor fit for the U.S. market.
The first generation Prius for the U.S. market was released in 2000 with increased power to both the internal combustion engine and electric motor. This new Prius met California emissions standards and included a lighter battery pack. U.S. consumers still found it to be under powered and burdened with other limitations including rear seats that did not fold down (Taylor, 2006).
Toyota hired Saatchi and Saatchi LA and Oasis Advertising of New York to help them advertise and position the new Prius. Working with these firms, Toyota realized that they needed to communicate not only the Prius' environmental advantages but also communicate how desirable and practical it was for regular, everyday transportation. The "PRIUS/genius" campaign launched as the result of this combined effort. (Geller, 2000).Starting two years before the Prius was available in the US, the campaign began by creating a dialogue with customers that resulted in 40,000 people expressing an interest in the Prius. These prospects were given early access to a private web site and were able to pre-order the Prius, which 1,800 did (Geller, 2000). The campaign then continued onto more traditional broadcast and print advertising and continued to combine interactive, outdoor and lifestyle marketing.
Toyota also worked with Mind Arrow systems to replace printed brochures with interactive, multimedia "eBrochures". This was very successful as 46% of the people that viewed the eBrochure clicked through to the Prius site and 36% requested additional information (Geller, 2000). While we are used to social media marketing today, Toyota was ahead of its time in using it back in 2000, and it is not surprising, that they succeeded in attracting innovators and some early adopters. Surprisingly, Toyota found out that the more extreme environmentalists were not interested in the Prius or other hybrids. They were frugal and turned off by the high tech aspects of the cars (Taylor, 2006). However, this early Prius did