MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The Japanese automaker Toyota has taken some big hits recently. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as a series of large recalls, have helped erode the company's share of the U.S. car market.
One place Toyota remains number one is with minority car buyers. Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans continue to buy more Toyotas than any other car brand, foreign or domestic.
NPR's Sonari Glinton explores why.
SONARI GLINTON: We're going to start this story about Toyota someplace you wouldn't expect: the General Motors shareholders' meeting earlier this month.
Unidentified Man #1: Is there another question that - microphone one, please.
Unidentified Woman #1: Mr. Chairman...
GLINTON: Perfectly boring meeting, until...
Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Founder and President, Rainbow PUSH Coalition): I have a concern about the role on stage and on the board and in the marketplace of people of color.
GLINTON: Recognize that voice? Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. His organization owns shares in GM. Like many groups, they own stock as a way of influencing corporate boards.
One of Jackson's concerns? GM is still the leading carmaker for white Americans, but its share of the black car market has eroded.
Rev. JACKSON: The figures of African-American market share now is Toyota, 15 percent; Ford, 11.7.
GLINTON: Jackson wants to know why Toyota is the number one car company for African-Americans and GM isn't.
Rev. JACKSON: Apparently, they know something that we should be observing.
Mr. BOB ZEINSTRA (National Manager, Product Marketing, Toyota Motor Sales, USA): All of our advertising for African-Americans and same for Asian-Americans and Hispanic, it's uniquely designed for them.
GLINTON: That's Bob Zeinstra. He's head of marketing for Toyota Motors Sales USA. If you combine all its brands - Toyota, Lexus, Scion - Toyota gets almost 19 percent of black buyers, 22 percent of Latino buyers and a whopping, if not surprising, 33 percent of Asian-American buyers, making it number one for all those groups.
Again, Bob Zeinstra.
Mr. ZEINSTRA: Not to beat a dead horse, but every word, every image, the background, the storyline, the voiceover, the music, everything is unique to that market.
(Soundbite of Toyota ad)
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Uh-uh.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (as character) Come on. It will be fun.
Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Ah. What would my boys think?
Unidentified Woman #2: (as character) I think it's cute, like you.
GLINTON: Toyota was worried that it wasn't selling enough hybrids to African-Americans, so it made this Prius ad where a young black couple gets a Prius as a rental car and is eventually convinced that it's the car for them.
(Soundbite of Toyota ad)
Unidentified Woman #2: (as character) Did you stop for gas?
Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Nope. Almost 500 miles on one tank.
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) And this is you?
Unidentified Man #2: (as character) No doubt.
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) Wow. I'm getting one of this.
Unidentified Man #4: The third generation...
GLINTON: Sales of the Prius almost doubled among black buyers after this ad ran. Marketers say this is the kind of direct marketing that makes Toyota win the minority market share.
Ms. MICHELLE KREBS (Analyst, Edmunds.com): But why do they win?
GLINTON: Michelle Krebs is an analyst with edmunds.com. She's been watching the auto industry since about 1980.
Ms. KREBS: It's because the Reverend Jesse Jackson has been striking fear into the hearts of Toyota executives for at least a decade.
GLINTON: Yup. That same Jesse Jackson.
In 2001, Toyota ran a print ad that Jackson found particularly offensive.
Ms. KREBS: One particular commercial showed a close-up of a black man's smile with a gold Toyota SUV carved in the tooth.
GLINTON: Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition threatened a boycott.
Now, when you see this picture of a black guy with a gold Toyota on his tooth, you can't help but think, well, what were they thinking? Which is exactly what Toyota executives said to themselves. Toyota's Bob Zeinstra says that incident was a real wake-up call.
Mr. ZEINSTRA: It drove us to learn more about consumers, which I think then drove up our market share and our sales.
GLINTON: Hello, Reverend Jackson.
Rev. JACKSON: Yes, sir.
GLINTON: I reached Jackson on a scratchy cell phone to talk about how far Toyota has come.
Rev. JACKSON: I think they rethought the marketplace.
GLINTON: Is that a lesson that you want the American automakers to learn?
Rev. JACKSON: It is. It means that if they take off their cultural blinders, they will see something they've not seen before.
GLINTON: The thing that they haven't seen? Jackson says that people of color are the future of the auto industry, not just in the U.S. but around the globe.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News.