Nissan Strikes A Major Chord In Nashville

by , Nov 29, 2013, 8:00 AM
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Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, BMW, and Nissan: all have headquarters and manufacturing in the U.S. Whether it's factories or offices, they have arrived to build cars and/or sell them here. 

Should they be “good neighbors” where they have landed their ships? Does it matter? Honestly, not really. All you need to do is fire off two press releases per quarter: we are creating local jobs and we have environmentally friendly operations. Wait -- you really don't even need to do that, truth be told. The top-selling vehicles in the U.S. are from across the pond(s). It’s not because they're sponsoring the ballpark. Let the dealers buy hot dogs for the Little League.

Nissan, however, is taking its proximity to Nashville seriously. The automaker, a hop and skip away in Franklin, Tenn., has since 2010 been putting money behind the town under its promotional and sponsorship platform called "Nashville Proud." It started small but now it's big: In addition to being sole sponsor of the famous Ryman Auditorium for the past three years, they also sponsor the Schermerhorn Symphony; the Tennessee Performing Arts Center; Music City Roots (kind of a diminutive version of the Grand Ol' Opry) out back of the Loveless Cafe; Bluegrass Underground, which is a concert for the non-claustrophobic in a natural amphitheater about 300 feet underground in Cumberland Caverns. They also sponsor the Nashville Film Festival, the Nashville Marathon, and the Bridgestone Arena. They are also title sponsor of the new Southland lifestyle and technology expo, and they have done projects with Gibson. And I'm probably missing a few items. 

Erich Marx, Nissan's head of interactive and social media, told me the idea came from former chairman of the Americas, Carlos Tavares, who kind of felt Nissan should be to Nashville what Starbucks is to Seattle. Or what Coca-Cola is to Atlanta, or Disney to Orlando. "He said he was driving around Nashville and didn't think Nissan had the proper level of presence. He said, 'We are the biggest brand in town and I don't get the sense of us as a corporate neighbor.'" 

So Marx, a musician who gigs around town with a band that has gotten some attention of its own, and who at the time was marketing director, got a bit of a budget to boost the company's presence locally. "And I — with Jon Brancheau's [VP marketing] blessing — chose to do it around music and the arts." So what's the ROI? Marx says that's not the point, and in any case the budget doesn't hit the "show me" level. "But we get that the success of Nashville means the success of Nissan; so it's not like we aren't in for Nissan's benefit. That just wasn't our original thought behind it. If Nashville succeeds, we succeed." 

He also says it's good from a recruiting standpoint. Which makes sense. There are a lot of engineers, designers, business types, "software whisperers" and others for whom "Want to move to Nashville?" wouldn't really be a closer.

I remember when Nissan moved there seven years ago, give or take. My first thought was, "Who in the hell’s going to want to go there from SoCal?" And I remember talking to people who were compelled to make the move; a couple of them said "yes" with the enthusiasm of a 19th century Englishman heading one-way to Australia. 

And maybe there is a bit of direct ROI: Nissan is the top-selling auto brand in town, according to Marx. And Nashville is a huge tourism draw. It’s vibrant. It has Jack White, who left Detroit to move there. Go figure. It has movie stars, just like L.A. Nicole Kidman lives there somewhere. It also has great music in every joint on every corner, every night, even at the airport, and not just country music, either.  And great food (like at the Loveless). And Nashville Wives. And if you go east you hit neuvo-hop Chattanooga and the Dragon’s Tail. Go west and you hit Graceland. What's not to love?

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