It doesn’t bother Lensha Dlamini that she drives one of the most macho technological artefacts in modern-day South Africa, the Toyota Hilux bakkie. It’s the Chuck Norris of bakkies, to hear fans talk about it, and it’s what many of the manne either own … or want to own some day.
It bothers some of these guys much more than it bothers her – to tell the truth, it makes her giggle.
“So, I was parking the other day and I did it quite well and some guy watched me do it and then when I got out he said to me: ‘Did your husband lend you this for the day?’”
She bursts out laughing as she shows what she did – showed him her left hand. No rings. No husband. No boyfriend.
As Toyota SA’s advertising manager, it’s not surprising that she drives the company’s best-selling vehicle … in fact, the Hilux is the best-selling vehicle (of any kind) on the SA market today.
“And you know, a lot more women are driving the Hilux and the Fortuner [the bakkie’s SUV sibling]. Sometimes they own them, sometimes they are the family transport during the week, when they fill the role of ‘mom’s taxi’ and then they’re the adventure transport for the weekend or holidays.”
She can’t resist extolling the virtues of the vehicle: “It’s so easy to drive and when you sit behind the wheel, it’s not nearly as big as it seems from the outside…”
Forgive the sexism, Lensha, but how did a nice woman like you end up in testosterone heaven?
Born in Swaziland, she gained a degree in marketing at the University of KZN in Pietermaritzburg and, interestingly enough, because she is not a born “petrolhead” she seemed to gravitate towards the motor business, working for tyre manufacturer Dunlop and then doing five years with the local Volvo operation.
“It’s not something I really chose,” she chuckles again, “It’s more that it – the industry – seemed to choose me…”
It’s also a challenging time for anyone in the motor business, even those working for Toyota, one of the most successful companies in South Africa.
As we chat in a glass-panelled boardroom in Toyota SA’s headquarters in Sandton – a building erected on a bare piece of veld back in the ’70s, I tell her that, back then, the marketing people in Toyota had some of the best jobs on the planet.
They (all men) came to work in their grey suits and brown shoes, with their briefcases, at 9am and went home long before 5pm (in those days, Sandton was “out in the sticks” and traffic jams were unheard of).
The reason for their relaxed lifestyle was that South Africans love Toyotas – you could probably have put a Toyota badge on a cardboard box and it would have sailed to the top of the charts.
Today, the market is way more competitive; there are many more car makers selling many more brands and models – and Toyota’s marketers actually have to work.
Dlamini agrees: “We know we have the best-selling and the best-quality vehicles on the market, but that certainly does not mean we can sit back and relax. It’s the opposite, really…”
As one of the brand custodians for the Hilux (which has been around here for nearly 50 years), Dlamini is acutely conscious of having to continue its market dominance, which is an increasingly tricky marketing feat these days.
“We have our traditional market, which is very very loyal,” she says, but as the country is changing, so is that market also changing slowly.
“These days, buyers from what you may call the ‘emerging market’ are just as concerned as the long-term fans about value-for-money, capability and reliability. And those are the selling points, not only of Hilux and Fortuner, but of the whole Toyota range.”
A big part of Toyota’s local marketing has been based on humour – the sort of self-deprecating, laugh-at-yourself gags that define us as a nation.
Even in the days of tension and hate on social media, Toyota and its ad agency FCB Johannesburg have managed to produce ads that get people smiling … and get them into Toyota dealerships.
Dlamini says that, despite the Toyota ad campaigns having the appearance of being laid-back, they are part of a thorough planning and execution process and have defined goals. Japanese efficiency but with a South African twist, you might say.
Driving a Hilux has had the side-effect of pushing her more into the “adventure space”, says Dlamini.
Her first company bakkie was a double cab two-wheel-drive Hilux which coped very well with the rough roads in Swaziland when she went back to visit family.
“My mom was like ‘hey, what are you doing in a bakkie?’ but when she saw how comfortable it was, she was also hooked…”
Next step is to get trained by Toyota’s resident 4×4 fundis. “I’d love to get out more into the outdoors – friends of mine are getting me into camping – and this is the perfect vehicle for it…”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a Hilux won this year’s edition of the gruelling Dakar Rally in South America. Dlamini is not ashamed of basking in that glory – because the winning bakkie was designed and made in South Africa.
The other great thing about a Hilux is the space … which Dlamini can use to chuck in all those out-of-date macho stereotypes about a woman’s place.