Executive Insider: Ed Laukes

We go in-depth with the new Marketing head about advertising, risk taking and NASCAR’s impact

November 02, 2017

You might know Ed Laukes best from his former job as the head of Toyota Racing. It was there, after all, that the Chicago native helped Toyota become the premier brand in auto racing.  

But in April, Laukes was promoted to group vice president of Toyota Division Marketing, where he leads one of the company’s critical endeavors. Driver’s Seat sat down with Laukes to ask him about his career and his professional philosophy. His answers are below, but we saved some for video, too. If you want to know about Laukes’ career, keep reading. If you want his tips on movies and travels, click here to watch the video. And, if you want to get a well-rounded view of Laukes, we suggest doing both. 

Driver’s Seat: You went to a Catholic school until eighth grade. Did you get in trouble with the nuns?
 
Ed Laukes: The nuns were extremely strict, but they were also the ones who were very endearing to our emotional needs. If you had a personal problem, they were very comforting. As an example, I can remember one of the super-strict nuns that I had, when the Cubs were in a pennant race, she’d wheel the black and white TV into class and turn on the Cubs game. It was a great memory. 

Did they help instill discipline in you?
 
They did. But I think the other thing that a lot of people don’t know is that my mother and father are both United States Marines. They both instilled a very strong work ethic in our family. When I had a paper route in Chicago and it was 20-below zero, my father would wake me up. I would grouse a little bit and he would make it very clear. He’d say, "You have two options: You can either get up and put your winter gear on and deliver the papers, or I’ll put you outside with what you’re wearing right now and you can deliver the papers."
 
Racing Guy -- Laukes (center right), at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2008, led Toyota Racing until this year. 
 

Let’s talk about your previous job as head of Toyota Racing.

I was general manager in the New York Region. Dave Illingworth (then-chief planning and administrative officer) called me in March 2007 and asked if I was interested in helping with racing. At that time, I followed racing, but I wasn’t a die-hard fan. So I met with Dave and we talked about the purpose of the NASCAR program: trying to endear ourselves to the American heartland with our commitment to building, servicing and selling cars in the United States. NASCAR fans were one particular group that we thought could help us carry that message as a brand.
 
When you left that job earlier this year, Toyota was the reigning manufacturers champion. That’s gotta feel pretty good.
 
The goal going into NASCAR Cup racing was to raise the awareness of everything that we do in the U.S. — from manufacturing to sales to the people we employ to our investment in the U.S. Along the way, we wanted to win the driver’s championship, which we did with Kyle Busch in 2015. And before last season, we had won manufacturers’ championships in truck and Xfinity series, but we hadn’t won in Cup. So last year, winning all three, and finally breaking the stranglehold on the manufacturers’ championship that Chevrolet had was such a huge deal to us.
 
You look at some of the numbers of how NASCAR influences purchases. We’re converting a whole new audience to Toyota that was always for Chevy or Ford.
 
One of our major focuses is purchase intention. We just want to be on the shopping list. If we can get Toyota onto the shopping list and get the customers into our showroom, then we have a great chance of selling a car. When we started, our purchase and consideration with NASCAR fans was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 percent. The domestics were running 65 percent. Now, in some measurements we run higher than the Detroit 3.
 
Let’s move onto your new job. You transitioned in April. What challenges are you seeing in the early days of this job?
 
I’ve been overseeing advertising since 2011. So really, the only addition I have now is handling all the additional responsibilities in Vehicle Marketing Communications. A lot of that is the lifecycle management and product launches. It’s been challenging, but we’re in a great position as a company with our current lineup and the new products coming.
 
In terms of marketing, what do we see in the future for Toyota?
 
When you look at the product cadence that’s coming down the road, and you look at the styling and the aggressiveness of some of the things everyone will see very soon, you’ll see that a brand shift has just begun. And it’s all about emotion. Making sure that people don’t think of a car, truck or SUV as just an appliance.
 
We hear a lot of product people say polarizing is OK, boring is not. Is it the same approach in marketing?
 
When we were growing up, we consumed media via four or five television stations, or radio and select print publications. Now you have TV, cable, digital, social media. You’re receiving all these different inputs. It’s extremely difficult to cut through. Polarizing advertising in some cases, while people may not like it, it’s memorable. As long as they’re not offended by it, then I think it’s OK.
 
What is the ultimate success in your job?
 
That depends on who you ask. Some would say it’s 2.1 million sales annually. For me, one of the things I’ve really focused on is developing people. In my position, I really don’t do the work anymore. I just lead a group of people and help them with their work by coaching. They’re the ones who should be recognized. Watching young people move through the ranks is what is most satisfying to me at this stage of my career.
 
What kind of person are you looking for on the Marketing team?
 
You need to be creative and imaginative. You need to be collaborative. But you also need to have enough gumption to be able to stand up for what you believe. For example, I learned a long time ago in my career, when you make a presentation to an executive in this organization, it was very difficult for them to say no to you if you demonstrate passion for what you are doing.
 
That Was Then -- Laukes (right) and current TMC Managing Officer Mark Templin addressing team members sometime in the past.

What’s something you do in your personal life that people might find surprising.
 
I watch a lot of movies. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m traveling so much. I like to watch a movie, and if it’s based on a book, I’ll read the book afterward. Most people say read the book and then watch the movie. But watching the movie and then reading the book gives me a little more perspective and peaks my interest.
 
I think you’re onto something there. Because if I read the book first, then I develop the characters in my head as to what they look like. And if they don’t match up with the actors in the movie, then the movie is ruined.
 
That’s funny because my wife and I talk about this all the time. She is one of the people who watches Entertainment Tonight, and they’re always talking about the actor that turned down the part. And you always go, “There’s no way!” Like Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump? That could’ve been Mel Gibson. There’s no way Mel Gibson is gonna be Forrest Gump.
 
Right. Why would you cast Mel Gibson when Tom Hanks is Forrest Gump?
 
Exactly!
 
So what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you about the biggest screw-up in your career?
 
I think it’s not as much about screw-ups as it is about risk vs. reward. If I could talk about risk, it would be when we did our experiment a few years ago with Home Shopping Network. We did three one-hour segments with HSN. But we couldn’t sell anything because of the franchise laws, so we did it as a showcase. It was a substantial amount of money, and there were multiple people within the organization who told me I was off my rocker.
 
This is the first I’ve heard of this, and I feel like you might be off your rocker.
 
Right, exactly. But the feedback was phenomenal because the HSN clientele are similar to NASCAR fans. They’re so loyal to HSN and the experience they have with the network. HSN set the stage for companies like Amazon. And those people were so loyal and we got a huge brand push when we did this experiment. It was like an auto show on TV.
 
Maybe we should start selling cars on Amazon.
 
That’s something we should start to think about. But it’s probably a ways off. Our dealers are the best in the business, and the relationships we have with them is the envy of the industry.
 
When that happens, do I get credit?
 
Absolutely.
 
It’s a good idea. I’m changing this company.
 
(laughs)
 
And that seems like a great place to end. Thanks, Ed!
 
Thank you!
 
By Dan Nied
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