When Nissan launched its Leaf electric car last year, it also made Leaf its halo vehicle -- a vehicle that embodies what Nissan is and where it is going. Jon Brancheau, VP marketing at the Franklin, Tenn.-based U.S. sales arm of the automaker, says that strategy will continue at least as long as Nissan is "blue water" in the segment, meaning that no other competitors are swimming around with pure-electric cars of their own.
So far, per Brancheau, Nissan has 5,000 reservations among the 20,000 or so handraisers, and even though production was postponed because of the earthquake in Japan, the company's chief Carlos Ghosn said it expects to fill all orders.
Brancheau says the key to Leaf's halo position will be keeping it from becoming the face of Nissan to the exclusion of other vehicles. "We will be balanced about Leaf as a halo," he says. "Our internal measures show good awareness and favorable opinion for Nissan associated with Leaf, so clearly it can be very strong for us over time just as Prius has been for Toyota."
The automaker is achieving that balance by taking the futurist theme in its "Innovation for All" campaign that launched Leaf last fall and applying it to vehicles like the new Murano CrossCabriolet -- the first convertible crossover. "We have a couple of spots in development right now," he says.
The latest ad for Leaf -- "The Value of Zero," which the company screened at the New York International Auto Show this week -- uses videos and stills from the natural world of round things as a metaphor for "0." The spot, with voiceover by actor Robert Downey, Jr., shows images like a flower, a pregnant woman's belly, numbers whizzing by on a gasoline pump meter, a hand drawing the number on a chalkboard and a green island --to say that zero actually has great value, as in zero gas or zero CO2.
"It's the right ad for Earth Week," says Brancheau, who adds that the spot is running in heavy rotation this week. He says the new spot, and upcoming ads that bring the message to other vehicles in the Nissan lineup, are "the 2.0 version of 'Innovation for All.' While we will be showing the breadth of our vehicles in advertising, we will talk first about the Murano Cabrio, which as a crossover-based design has its own strong innovation story."
Brancheau says Nissan will exercise a creative discipline over its ads, so that regardless of the vehicle getting the spotlight, the creative will carry recognizable elements. "You will see very consistent ads, with Downey Jr. as the voiceover, and flashes of light at the beginning and close of the spots [a visual theme that Nissan introduced with the Leaf launch]. We are more disciplined now than we have been in many years," he says. "We have found that people who are exposed to the 'Innovation for All" campaign have a higher opinion for [the] brand and are 30% more likely to visit a dealer."
He says ads featuring Nissan's family of vehicles are in production, showing the vehicles juxtaposed with great innovations. In one, Downey, Jr. says: "Wouldn't it be cool if a crossover could be a cabriolet?" One of the ads will tease Nissan's future product plans by showing the "S Flow" concept.
In the present, Nissan is focusing on sports marketing, and this week is in talks with the Heisman Trophy Trust about extending Nissan's relationship with the organization for another year. "They have allowed us to leverage the relationship on college campuses [with] experiential rides and drives, with 'Sports Illustrated' as a partner," he said.
Nissan is also sponsoring the NFL, whose next season is still up in the air as contract negotiations have not found their way to a conclusion. Brancheau says Nissan will have exclusive sponsorship of a full quarter on NBC's "Sunday Night Football," if and when the player strike ends.
There will also be a hilarious new spot for Leaf that I promised on pain of death not to talk about. Trust me, it's funny.