Scion A/V: When Toyota made a Not-For-Profit Platform for Artists

We all know about the Scion experiment. Toyota’s attempt to create cars for North American millennials, where traditional trim levels and dealer haggling were eschewed in favour of monospec cars that were intended to be personalised according to each customer’s tastes and a “Pure Price” system where what you saw on the window sticker
was the actual price you would pay, ultimately ended up being a failure. Whilst this wasn’t an innovative method of marketing and selling cars (General Motors had done it with the Saturn brand before), it was one that had been proven to work with North American customers in the past. Scion also used viral and guerrilla marketing, embracing internet culture to get themselves into the same channels and spaces that millennials occupied. The brand ran from 2003-2016 before being ended and absorbed into Toyota. Cars previously sold as Scions were either rebranded as Toyotas or discontinued entirely, their whimsical millenial ways never to grace the North American market again.

One of the most interesting things about the Scion experiment though was that Scion as a brand didn’t just sell cars. Scion as a brand also distributed and sold music, art and film. Yes, you read that correctly. Through the Scion brand, Toyota ran Scion Audio Visual (aka Scion A/V). Scion A/V was a not-for-profit enterprise (it could afford to be this way due to the massive amount of spare cash Toyota has lying around) set up to fund creative projects. These creative projects ranged from everything from records, music videos and live events in several different genres of music including heavy metal, dance, hip-hop and garage rock to short films, documentaries and web series produced by independent filmmakers. The artists who were funded by Scion A/V retained full ownership of their creative endeavours. Scion also funded all production, licensing and distribution costs. All the profits made went straight back to the artists.

Seems like a pretty sweet deal, right? It was certainly a lot better than the kind of deals most ‘conventional’ record labels or film studios were offering at the time. It’s no wonder, then, that a lot of artists jumped on the Scion A/V bandwagon. By the time the project came to an end, Scion A/V had released over 140 different records that included EPs, full albums and singles and had worked with over 1,500 artists. These artists ranged from rappers such as ASAP Rocky and Danny Brown to the heaviest of heavy metal including Meshuggah, Revocation, Immolation and Red Fang. The Black Lips were a notable garage rock act that partnered up with this odd millennial car company-meets record label pairing, as did the legendary American rock band Melvins who released their The Bulls & The Bees EP through the imprint.

Perhaps the most pivotal thing Scion A/V managed to fund though was helping to break superstar DJ Steve Aoki into the mainstream. The label (if you want to call it that) helped to fund one of Aoki’s very first tours. It was through those initial tours that Aoki developed the on-stage antics that made him a must-see live act. This then led to his international breakthrough in the early 2010s that saw him collaborate with, Linkin Park, Travis Barker, Lil John and many others. If you’re a huge fan of Aoki, I guess you have Toyota’s attempts to sell cars to millennials to thank for helping to make him popular!

Beginning in 2009, Scion A/V also produced regular live events. Scion Rock Fest took place on a yearly basis from 2009, visiting locations that included Atlanta, Colombus, Pomona and Tampa and bringing along some serious heavy hitters in the rock and metal world as headlining acts. The 2011 edition of the festival held in Pomona somehow managed to book thrash metal legends Morbid Angel as its headlining act! Scion Garage Rock Fest was also founded in the same year, although it only lasted until 2010 before being discontinued.

Why did Toyota go to the trouble of doing all of this? Basically, it was all in the name of marketing. Scion A/V took the notion of sponsorship and pushed it well beyond its traditional boundaries. Toyota wasn’t just slapping the Scion brand on a music festival. It was actively funding projects made by artists who perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise got much support from the music industry and letting them keep all the profits from those projects! In a rather brilliant move, Toyota had worked out that by giving artists something that the traditional music and lm industries weren’t giving them (fully-funded production and distribution, total creative ownership and 100% of the profits from their work) they were able to get an incredible amount of rapport out of them. Basically, be nice to artists in an industry where usually big companies aren’t nice to them, and you will be rewarded with brand loyalty.

Considering the Scion A/V experiment went so well, it’s odd that Toyota didn’t bother carrying it over when the Scion brand was ended in 2016. You’d think that Toyota would have realised that there wouldn’t really be any problems with just rebranding the program. The thing is, the Scion brand was created purely to sell cars to millennials. Toyota, at least in America, isn’t a brand that resonated well with a millennial audience at the time. Toyotas tended to be bought by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers and, as a result, took that image along with them. With Toyota having an image squarely placed somewhere that appealed to older customers, carrying such a millennial-focused sponsorship program like Scion A/V over into the post-Scion era likely didn’t make any sense to Toyota’s marketing heads at the time.

Of course, to many people outside of America, this is a bit bewildering. A lot of young people in the UK, Europe and Asia buy Toyotas. The Toyota brand doesn’t have this same kind of Gen X/Baby Boomer branding stigma that it seems to have in North America. In Japan, Toyota’s brand was considered for a long time to be so strong and all-encompassing on its own merit that cars that were sold as Lexuses elsewhere were sold as Toyotas there! People can be fickle, though. Branding really does matter and if Toyota’s North American bosses thought that there was no way that any parts of the Scion experiment’s marketing strategies could be repurposed for Toyota, it makes next to zero
sense that Toyota should even attempt to continue something like Scion A/V.

In many ways, that’s a real shame. Scion A/V may have mainly been created to sell cars, but it did give the artists and filmmakers who collaborated with the brand the kind of incredible creative freedom and support that the rest of the entertainment industry wasn’t really providing at the time. This kind of creative freedom, fuelled by a non-profit business model that was able to work because of Toyota’s massive reserves of cash, could have created a whole new space for creatives to build a following and a career free from the usual stuffiness of creative industries. I know that wasn’t Toyota’s ultimate aim for the project, but it’s a very interesting side-effect of the Scion A/V experiment that really could have been expanded upon further.

Scion A/V is, ultimately, not much more than a footnote in Toyota’s history. It was a marketing experiment within a marketing experiment, designed to help a brand that was already squarely aimed at millennials sell even more cars to millenials. But, entirely by accident, it ended up creating one of the most interesting crossovers between the entertainment industry and the car industry we’ve ever seen. It created a weird entity that had the potential to move beyond helping Toyota sell cars. For that reason alone, Scion A/V deserves to be remembered.


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