The Japanese automaker Toyota has taken its fair share of hits in the past year and a half: The earthquake and tsunami in Japan as well as last year's recall fiasco have helped erode the company's share of the U.S. car market.
But one place Toyota remains No. 1 is with minority car buyers — Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans continue to buy more Toyotas than any other car brand, domestic or foreign.
Toyota's claim on the minority market has the Rev. Jesse Jackson questioning other car companies' practices.
"I have a concern about the role onstage, and on the board, and in the marketplace of people of color," he said at a General Motors shareholders meeting in May.
His organization, Rainbow Push Coalition, owns shares in GM. Like many groups, it owns stock as a way of influencing corporate boards.
One of Jackson's concerns? GM's dissolving share of the black car market.
"Apparently they know something that we should be observing," he says.
Bob Zienstra, head of marketing for Toyota Motors Sales USA, says the company's success among minorities is due in large part to its advertising.
"All of our advertising for African-Americans, and same for Asian-Americans and Hispanics, it's uniquely designed for them," he says.
Marketing professionals all say that, as car companies go, Toyota is the best when it comes to marketing to minorities.
And it's borne out in the numbers.
Toyota's combined brands — Toyota, Lexus and Scion — bring in almost 19 percent of black buyers, 22 percent of Latino buyers and 33 percent of Asian buyers, according to Truecar.com. That makes it No. 1 for all those groups.
"Not to beat a dead horse, but every word, every image, the background, the storyline, the voice over, the music — everything is unique to that market," Zienstra says.
For example, when Toyota was worried that it wasn't selling enough hybrids to African-Americas, it aired an ad starring a young black couple who rented a Toyota Prius. Throughout the commercial the couple becomes convinced that the Prius is the car for them.
Prius sales doubled among black buyers after this ad ran. And marketers say this is the kind of direct marketing that makes Toyota win the minority market share.
A Wake-Up Call
But it wasn't always this way.
"It's because the Rev. Jesse Jackson has been striking fear into the hearts of Toyota executives for at least a decade," says Michelle Krebs, an analyst with Edmunds.com. She's been watching the auto industry since 1980.
In 2001 Toyota ran a print add that Jackson found particularly offensive.
"One particular commercial showed a close-up of a black man's smile with a gold Toyota SUV carved in the tooth," she says.
Jackson and his Rainbow Push Coalition threatened a boycott.
Toyota's Zienstra says that incident was a real wake-up call.
"It drove us to learn more about consumers, which I think then drove up our market share and our sales," he says.
"I think they rethought the market place," he says.
He also points out a lesson he thinks other car companies should learn: "If they take off their cultural blinders they will see something that they've never seen before," he says.
The thing they haven't seen? Jackson says it's that people of color are the future of the auto industry — not just in the U.S. but around the globe.