Nissan is the fastest-growing automaker in the world, with 1.2 million units sold last year. And in its latest report, Interbrand listed the automaker in the top five, behind Porsche. But Nissan is facing some serious challenges. One is furthering its electric and alternative powertrain vehicle program, which right now is hitting a demand, awareness and perception ceiling. Nissan launched Leaf in late 2010 and quickly made it the centerpiece of its brand identity, something of a shift, if you will, from an earlier positioning purely around excitement and performance -- Nissan as the exciting Japanese auto brand, if you will.
But what is Nissan now? The focus is on establishing the brand as the go-to automaker for innovation and progressive thinking around how vehicles should respond to global trends. And also excitement.
To try to put that, and other issues together, Nissan has formed a global advisory board to -- as chief global marketing officer Andy Palmer puts it -- hold a mirror up to itself, better communicate with owners and move forward. The company tapped former GM EV1 marketer Chelsea Sexton to be EV advocate, and Billy Hayes to be global VP of sales to help with that program. Sexton will focus on building out owner and prospect social networks to help explain Leaf. One of Hayes' duties will be figuring out how to get dealers to put more effort on touting the car in showrooms, since it takes, by Nissan Motors' EVP Andy Palmer's estimate, four to six times as long to turn a Leaf than, say, a Sentra.
Palmer, who oversees Infiniti and Nissan global marketing, spoke on Tuesday to an intimate gathering in a hotel conference room with a view on the Freedom Tower construction site. Palmer said Nissan is also trying to reach higher as a zero-emission auto brand that understands the ecological consequences of a world that will have eight billion souls, mostly in cities, by 2025 and lots of carbon emissions. He said Nissan is also focusing on emerging markets -- Brazil, Russia, India and China and Indonesia -- where it will bring back the Datsun marque. The third pillar of Nissan's midterm strategy is to grow its Infiniti luxury brand to be a credible alternative to the three German luxury brands in global markets, especially Europe.
"When I took over global marketing 18 months ago, and you asked internally what does Nissan stand, for you'd get a lot of answers. I don't think that is true today," said Palmer. "We have solid ground we stand on now and one reason is leadership in zero-emission vehicles."
That's a tough road. Sales of such vehicles are disappointing this year. One of the reasons, according to Palmer and Sexton, is consumer perception on both the over-optimistic, and negative ends of the spectrum. "But we have sold 40,000 units worldwide, so the quantum of growth is tremendous. We have faced headwinds, the earthquake didn't help, as battery plants were closed, the yen is killing us, and uptake in the U.S. isn't as strong as we had first hoped," he says.
The speed of infrastructure deployment in terms of battery-charging stations has been a problem, but less than one might think, and less than Nissan's not having connected with owners and consumers in the right way, per Palmer. "We haven't engaged well in certain digital forums, or with the enthusiasts. And the Leaf customer has more expectations. We are still learning, and fielding discussion has been one of those learnings. We have been slow, and that's one reason I've asked [Sexton] to help."
He said there's a huge consumer perception gap between Leaf's pros and cons. "As a car maker, we have not made the best job of showing what those pros and cons are." From Sexton's point of view, Leaf should be thought of as the auto equivalent of the microwave oven, which "you may not use to cook a turkey, but you still use it all the time. Part of the challenge is shifting perception to the Leaf as one's primary vehicle, which is actually how owners use it. Their other vehicles become secondary."
Palmer conceded that quite often the car is being bought on the premise of being the second or third car in a household. It ends up being used as the primary vehicle.
Palmer said that while the more charging-stations there are in a market, the higher the Leaf sales, owners don't actually use those stations very much. "In Japan, where Leaf enjoys the strongest sales, you have an extensive fast-charging network nationwide, with stations within 20 kilometers of each other," said Palmer. "But usage of fast charges is not so high. it seems to be that people need to see those fast chargers for security. In point of fact, owners charge Leafs at home."
Has Nissan put too much effort on promoting infrastructure programs? Sexton says yes, adding that Leaf commercials have also been too focused on rational considerations and not enough on emotional appeal. "Cars are an emotional purchase. That's no less true if the car is an EV."
Then there's Infiniti, which suffers low awareness and consideration, especially across the pond. Palmer said awareness two years ago was 2.5% but improved when the company started focusing on marketing partnerships with brands like Red Bull around Formula 1 racing. He said overall opinion has risen to 22.5%, "Which is still relatively low, so we have a long journey." To help with that the company is changing its Infiniti portfolio.
The first new vehicle was the JX crossover, which launched last year, and is loaded with anti-collision technology that does things like stop the car if you are approaching to quickly a vehicle or barrier. "In the not too distant future we'll have the next-generation Infiniti G, and that will introduce a new design language," he said, adding that the company moved Infiniti out of Japan and over to Hong Kong, to allow it to cultivate its own style and feel. "We copied VW group with Audi in that regard, and also in June recruited Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America to lead, so it's not too difficult to see who we are benchmarking."
Infiniti will also get its own electric car as well, which has been shopped around as a concept called the LE, a sleeker, lower sedan, versus the Leaf hatch.