Abandoned History: Project Genesis, Toyota Cars for Young People

Toyota was very focused on youthful consumer appeal at the turn of the millennium. Around the same time the WiLL sub-brand launched in the Japanese home market with its multitude of different products, a similar project was just getting underway at Toyota Motor Sales USA.

It was called Project Genesis, and like WiLL, it didn’t go well.

Project Genesis was a task force established by two of the top brass at Toyota USA in 1999. President Yoshimi Inaba and company COO James Press had a great idea for three exciting new cars about to arrive at North American Toyota dealers.

The cars in question were the seventh generation Celica, the third-gen MR2, and the new ECHO. All three cars entered production late in 1999 for the 2000 model year, and while customers were already familiar with the sporty Celica and MR2, the ECHO was a 2000 replacement for the dearly departed Tercel. Tercel ran through the ’98 model year if you can believe it.

Toyota USA knew these new cars appealed to their youngest customers, and the plan for them was simple: Market all three as their own sub-brand within Toyota dealers in the US. The plan extended to the Japanese dealership network as well, which is a more complicated setup than is used in North America.

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Celica, MR2, and ECHO (Platz in Japan) were to be bundled together in print advertisements and use a different marketing strategy than the rest of the Toyota lineup. Affordability, fuel economy, and being so cool with techno music were all features of the ad campaigns, as seen here. For whatever reason, no one has memorialized a 2000s US market MR2 ad on YouTube.

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Did the advertising work? Did younger buyers flock to the three new Toyotas with their targeted commercials and sub-brand print materials? No, not really. The most successful product of the group with younger consumers was the Celica. It was more well-rounded than the too costly, too small MR2, and the too economical and goofy-looking ECHO. Much like other economy cars that were supposed to be “fun” and “cool,” older people bought the ECHO (usually in silver or beige) and then drove it very slowly around town.

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There were other problems with the Genesis sub-branding, too. Other than posing the three cars together in ads, the project had no say in product decisions, and a limited budget. All the product development for the three “sub-brand” cars was finished long before Project Genesis was created. Even with ads like the (extreme cringe) above, the marketing efforts of Project Genesis never made much headway. But they did have their own website, isthistoyota.com. That address now routes directly to the main Toyota USA site.

Genesis wasn’t working, and the management at Toyota was ready to bail. So they did, quickly. The top two Genesis managers were reassigned by mid-February of 2000. Toyota changed all its marketing for 2001 (see headline image above) and went in a more serious, non-grouped direction. Other employees on the project were shuffled around too, and Genesis was officially ended in 2001 by the announcement of Project Exodus. Exodus had a better-known commercial name: Scion. Toyota USA would take the lessons learned during the brief Project Genesis marketing work and apply it to the Scion brand, which would surely be successful for many decades.

[Images: Toyota]

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