Toyota Friend | Stuzo InsightsToyota announced on Monday that it is partnering with and Microsoft to create a private social network for its customers called Toyota Friend. Unlike other automotive technologies that are focused on improving in-car connectivity, Toyota Friend is focused on improving the relationship between drivers, their cars, and the Toyota brand through an interactive experience. Toyota President Akio Toyoda explains, “Social networking services are transforming human interaction and modes of communication. The automobile needs to evolve in step with that transformation.”

Toyota Friend will send drivers messages about low battery power, maintenance problems, driving habits, product and service information, and vehicle performance. These messages can then be kept private, shared with other Toyota Friend users, or made public through sites like Facebook and Twitter. The service will be accessible through mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. Toyota plans to unveil it in Japan in 2012 first with electric cars and then with plug-in hybrids.

This new technology raises an important question for brands. When does integrating social into product make sense?

There are Wi-Fi enabled refrigerators that allow you to tweet while you check whether or not the milk is bad. To me, this doesn’t seem like the most practical application of social. Do people really want to stand in front of the refrigerator and tweet? Probably not.

It comes down to value for both consumers and the brand. Social needs to enhance the product experience not distract from it. For consumers, Toyota Friend will help them maintain and enjoy their cars for longer. For Toyota, it will provide the automaker important information on their buyers and their vehicles. In the case of the refrigerators, the ability to access social networking sites does not improve the quality or usability of the product. It is simply a fancy add-on.

Toyota Friend is just one example of how social is being infused into products. Whether or not the technology succeeds, it shows that brands are embracing social media as more than just marketing tools. To succeed in today’s rapidly changing business environment as a social business, brands must leverage social media as part of their long-term consumer engagement strategies.