One way Toyota reads the public mind is the think tank at Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif., where a research department staffed by 116 people monitors the industry and keeps tabs on demographic and economic developments. Its mission: to predict consumer trends and create a lineup of cars and trucks to capitalize on them. Each professional is expected to spend time out in the field talking to car buyers. The Japanese have a name for it: genchi genbutsu - go to the scene and confirm the actual happenings.
Most big companies have something like it; what distinguishes Toyota is that its executives actually listen and have turned those insights into profits. When researchers found in the mid-1990s that Toyota was losing young buyers to hipper brands like VW, its marketers dreamed up the hugely successful Scion.