Live Wired, Die Young
Nissan positions car as the latest iAccessory
James Dean must be turning over in his grave. It seems the lure of fast cars and the open road is past its prime. This summer, Nissan is betting the bank that kids love their smartphones more than any convertible. It is introducing its boxy little Cube in the United States as basically a big iPhone on wheels.
"We envision owners using their Cubes as one of their essential mobile devices, connecting with friends, sharing music and sharing fun," says Christian Meunier, marketing vice president for Nissan North America.
The carmaker credits its agency TBWAChiatDay for coming up with the "mobile device" concept -- and perhaps it is no coincidence that an offshoot of ChiatDay, TBWAMedia Arts Lab, handles the iPhone and iPod marketing for Apple out of an adjacent building. While the shops have separate staffs, the Apple and iPhone vibe is clearly part of the Chiat DNA, according to insiders. Officially, Nissan downplays the Chiat link between brands. "Apple is a social icon that can influence anybody; what we have in common is our edgy design," says Erich Marx, marketing communications director at Nissan North America.
Indeed, the $14,000 Cube looks a lot like the blown-up version of a little device you might carry around in your pocket. Square like the early Toyota Scion xBs, it has whimsically rounded windows, including a back window that wraps around one side. The interior roof has circular ripples reminiscent of a giant speaker, making passengers feel like they are inside an oversized music player.
You'd assume that such a techie-looking product had been designed with the mobile-phone concept in mind, but you'd be wrong. The Cube is actually the third generation of a vehicle that has been marketed in Japan since 1998.
Since Japanese Cubes appealed largely to young drivers, Nissan prepared for the U.S. launch by studying the American millennial market, and one key finding popped out. Research by CNW Marketing showed that when young people were asked: "What would impress your friends most?" only 20 percent said a new car. Nearly 80 percent said an iPhone.
That insight sparked the agency's creative strategy of treating the Cube as an extension of consumers' mobile devices, a social hub that brings the world to them. Better yet, since no other carmaker had grasped that "mobile" connection, "it seemed like an effective way to differentiate ourselves from the competition," Marx says. To drive home the point, client and agency decided the national ads and marketing should use social media -- rather than auto -- lingo, such as "login," "join group," "upload" and "edit profile."
Plug and Play
In April, a month before the Cube went on sale, the car appeared in an episode of NBC's Heroes, backed with a traditional TV ad and a promo spot touting a sweepstakes on the NBC Web site. At the site, people could also download a Heroes comic book that featured the auto. Cube simultaneously unveiled a branded Facebook page with high-production videos, and used Current TV to encourage viewers to submit their own Cube videos that are aired on Current's Web site.
To build more buzz, about 1,000 branded T-shirts with offbeat slogans were sold for $16 a pop on the brand's Web site and an "ambient cube," a mysterious, car-sized white cube (sans wheels), was parked in urban entertainment districts and appeared in images on YouTube and Flickr. A month later, the Facebook page had 2,421 fans, but many were Nissan dealers hyping their "special deals." Between the promo posts, users commented about the car's "cool" looks and the challenge of finding the cash to buy one. The Facebook videos attracted only about 50 comments.
Since the vehicle was being compared to a moving mobile phone, it follows that Nissan better have marketing that uses actual mobile phones. So when the Cube went on sale in May, Nissan unveiled its biggest-ever mobile marketing campaign. A short code or "text to" number in television, print, direct mail and online ads gave people access to the Cube mobile hub where they could download wallpapers, videos, music, ringtones and a link to the Nissan mobile site.
In June, when the estimated $20-$40 million launch campaign hit full steam, an iPhone app was introduced - a game that sends the player around a city picking up friends, ice and music before a party while avoiding obstacles. Thanks to a partnership with yelp.com, an event-finder tool will also be added to the Web ads, says Bria Colyer, Chiat digital account supervisor.
To feed these digital components, ads ran on Gen Y cable TV shows and in young-skewing pop culture magazines. Online ads let people remix and share the music that plays in the tv ads. Both traditional and digital work show young people in groups to reinforce the "social vehicle" message and linger on the "quirky" design of the auto, says Kerry Feuerman, Chiat creative director. Unlike more angular rivals, "the Cube's design is more rounded, giving it character and personality -- it's a conversation starter."
In the meantime, the automaker has been drumming up promotional ideas from marketing classes at 10 universities, including Johns Hopkins, San Diego State and Texas A&M. Students, who were given a hypothetical budget and strategic brief, competed for the best marketing campaign. For Nissan, the losing projects are as useful as the winners, because of the novel thinking they bring to the table, says Marx. For instance, students often played off the car's name and shape for grassroots events, such as branded outdoor parties called "BarbeCubes," and product displays that lined up a dozen cars side by side, like an ice cube tray.
Based on his experience with youth brands, such as Red Bull, Nike and Adidas, Scott Taylor, founder of experiential marketing agency Taow, wonders if it's all too much and looks slightly askance at the indirect iPhone connotation. "Brands need to be careful associating themselves with the Apple vibe right now. We believe the brand is overexposed and heading for a consumer backlash," he says.
Andrea Learned, marketing consultant and author of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy, says that using an emotional, rather than rational, approach "should work well for both young males and young females." But she worries that the marketing may be short-selling both the car's appeal and the younger generation's values. Cube as "mobile device seems so cutesy, it feels somewhat inauthentic," she adds.
Kate Newlin, strategy consultant and author of Passion Brands, calls the effort "witty" and says the car has the potential to grow into a passion brand. But "it's best to market to a mind-set, not a demo. This might be too narrow cast. It is a stereotype that the people who love iPhones are just the young," she says.
Newlin, who also sees the dealerships as a potential problem, says, "I just don't see the kids going to the Nissan dealership to buy these. It's not cutting-edge, it is where their parents buy cars. Toyota's Scion learned that kids want places just for themselves. Apple had to create its own stores. Are dealers going to understand this campaign, or corrupt it with their own marketing?" While Nissan is not requiring dealers to do any special retail marketing for Cube, the company vows to keep the Cube message as emotional and consistent as it can.
"This is the most single-minded focus and theme of any launch that Nissan has done," says Marx. "It is a blueprint for other launches: Find an idea that captures people's imaginations and stick to the same look, feel and tone in all our marketing," he explains. Forgive the comparison, but that sounds a lot like Apple.