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Due to the prevalence of various social media platforms, the buzz about personal, professional and business branding has rapidly gained momentum. Being in touch and tuned in to these venues is of utmost importance in the competitive landscape created by the instantaneous nature of information sharing. Of course, not everyone is enthusiastic about this phenomenon. They may wonder: how much do words matter when it comes to image, reputation and public perception?


Like many people, I’ve been following along as events have unfolded in the Toyota recall situation. One of the most widely reported aspects of this fiasco was the obvious absence of a corporate response early on. When Toyota’s executives finally did come forward to publish their reactions, many consumers and industry advisors felt it was too little, too late, and thus not very credible. Through various media sources, Toyota has begun the arduous process of damage control to regain the public’s trust in their brand.


Similar to Tiger Woods, Toyota’s once pristine image has transformed into a comedic punch line through their handling of a series of "indiscretions" or lack of forthright disclosure of such issues. Efforts to repair this publicity nightmare have included television, radio and print media advertisements. Several full page newspaper ads have contained letters of apology from the company’s leaders as well as status updates on steps they have taken or plan to put in place to address the unintended acceleration issues or failure of electronic safety mechanisms.


Despite this, it seems not a day goes by without additional revelations of quality concerns or new reports on neglectful practices by the company. Many are questioning whether these incidents have created irreparable harm to the brand. Or, if it will be used as a learning opportunity, where by Toyota once again will reinvent and lead the auto industry.


Regardless of the long term outcome, for the time being, Toyota’s tagline "moving forward" seems eerily misplaced under the circumstances. Likewise, the choice of the phrase, "but we’re not stopping there" contained in one of the recent full page letters to Toyota drivers carries an unfortunate irony when picturing an unstoppable vehicle. 


So this brings me to the general concept of communication and how perfectly good words go wrong… Most people, or companies for that matter, don’t have Toyota’s PR and marketing budget at their disposal when crafting their branding messages. And, clearly from the above examples, experts may not even prevent unanticipated word choice interpretations from occurring. 


 When trying to stand out, it is critical to select meaningful words that portray the subject in a favorable light, especially given our short attention spans. Bland, boring or predictable cliché phrases often bring a negative connotation. And, as evidence points out, depending on context or perspective, even neutral or innocent terms, such as Toyota’s "moving forward" slogan, can provoke very contradictory messages in our minds.


Prior to the recent shortcomings, "progress" and "innovation" appeared to be Toyota's selling points. Now it is much more likely that they are striving to overcome "reckless" and "endangerment" definitions associated with their tagline. Same words being referenced, but entirely different meaning when attached to the current image, reputation and public perception.