Over the past five years, Toyota’s European sales have grown 39.6%. At the same time, its share of the market has grown from 3.6% to 5.1%, Automotive News Europe said.

But recent surveys show that less than half of European consumers say they know the Toyota brand very well or fairly well – even though the automaker has been selling cars in Europe since the early 1980s.

So the automaker is overhauling its brand experience centre in Paris – a flashy showroom in the heart of the city on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees.

The goal of the centre is to reach out to tourists and local citizens to tell the Toyota story. In turn, Toyota hopes that will help put it on more Europeans’ shopping lists the next time they buy a vehicle.

Getting more Toyotas on the road will also bring the automaker more attention.

One of the key elements in brand knowledge is the number of units in operation, said Andrea Formica, vice president of sales and marketing for Toyota Marketing Europe.

At the end of 2004, Toyota had only 7.6 million units in operation in Europe. That compares to more than 16 million units for Fiat.

“People who know Toyota have a great reputation for its brand and its products, which is good,” Formica said. “But we have to work hard to get recognised from the other half of the public which doesn’t know us at all.

Overhauling the experience centre is the latest step in Toyota’s effort to boost its image in Europe.

Earlier, Toyota Europe changed its logo colour from red to silver – to match the badge on its cars – and the corporate signage of its 3,000 European sales and service outlets. It also revised the architecture and colours of its auto show displays.

Now, it is the experience centre’s turn. Called Le Rendez-Vous Toyota, the centre opened in October 1998 on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. Citroen, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Renault also have similar stores on the street.

Toyota is investing about €5 million in renovating the 1,000-square-metre store. Work began in April and is set to be finished by the end of September.

The Champs-Elysees is considered unique because it attracts an estimated 180 million visitors a year. From April to September, most visitors are foreigners, mainly European. From October to March, French citizens are the majority.

In addition to the large numbers of the people getting there, the Champs-Elysees is the only place in the world where you find carmakers brand centres along with flagship stores of fashion and luxury goods, said Formica.

With the renovation of its Paris centre, Toyota hopes to increase the number of visitors a year to 1 million, from about 800,000 visitors in 2003.

Another goal is to double the duration of the average visit to about 20 minutes to 30 minutes. A study in October 2003 showed that 36% of visitors spent less than 10 minutes in the centre, while another 42% spent between 10 minutes and 15 minutes.

The study also found that curiosity attracts 42% of visitors, while another 14% enters to see car models in general. 69% of visitors to Le Rendez-Vous Toyota also visit other carmakers’ showrooms on the Champs-Elysees.

Toyota does not want to transform its overhauled brand experience centre into a dealership. New cars will not be on sale and just one or two of the newest production models will be on display.

The main focus will be on concept cars to emphasise Toyota’s design, and on new technology to show the state of the art of the Japanese maker.

The first floor will be dedicated to a Formula One display. Previously, the first floor housed a restaurant that just 3% of visitors had even noticed.

Toyota hopes longer stays will permit visitors to learn more about the company and its products. In the October 2003 survey, just 14% of visitors entered Le Rendez-Vous Toyota to see a particular model and another 3% entered to find out more about Toyota.

At the moment, Toyota is not planning to build any other brand centres similar to the Paris centre.

Toyota spends about €5 million a year to run its Paris brand experience centre. Renting the space is by far the biggest expense, close to half the total budget.

Said Formica: “Nowhere in Europe could you find another location as internationally attractive as the Champs-Elysees.”