Nissan Evinces Marketing Lessons Well Learned

Major brands spoke at the Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing last week, and all of the speeches were inspirational. A home run this year for the ANA, thanks to Bob Liodice, who, along with the organizers, outdid himself. 

And not one single speaker neglected to say these things about success, however you define it: success cannot be summoned without risk; short-term thinking precludes risk-taking and kills growth; flexibility is key; data is worthless when it's spun to make people and the company look good (I think maybe Jim Stengel said this?); and innovation can't happen if you're not willing to spend on it.

In other words, if your strategy is based on thinking about what you're going to say at your shareholder meeting, you should start thinking about an exit strategy. 

Nissan is a good case study because the company has been a global growth leader in recent years. Roel de Vries, corporate VP, head of marketing, communications and brand strategy at Nissan spoke, about his global brand and how the heck a company of that size establishes one. "Changing brand value is hard, but doing that in a large corporation is harder still," he said. Which reminded me of an ill-advised effort by GM a few years ago to create a GM brand by putting a GM badge on all of the vehicles under its (at that time) bloated brand catalogue: Hummer, Saturn, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC, Saab, Buick and a couple of others I'm probably forgetting. And GM took some risks itself by dispensing with half of those brands and focusing on the core nameplates. 

De Vries said to forget about some idealized straight path to getting to brand value. "What's worse is, it's a journey without an end. When you think you're on the right path, you have to change." Nissan has taken its share of risks, one being the GT Academy program that grew from the popularity of the brand on video games. It works partly because it upholds the brand, rather than distracting from it. It supports an "excitement" idea around its sports cars and its NISMO performance sub-brand. (Usain Bolt actually became Nissan's "director of excitement" in 2012). "Only 1.5% of people are buying cars in a given year. Our job is not to just communicate the specs of a car but to become meaningful as a brand overall."

It sounds like common sense but who does it? De Vries say the company shifted its marketing dollars to "emotive" properties in sports and entertainment. "What do sports and entertainment have to do with cars? On an emotional level, the link is incredibly strong." He said if you want to be seen as innovative and exciting, you have to be part of what excites your customers. In Nissan's case it's "The Voice"; the Olympics in Brazil, college football in the U.S. (where else) with sponsorship of the Heisman; and soccer. Also, if you're a global brand you will have a sponsorship opportunity queue outside your office a mile long. If you don't have a solid brand identity — something that was reiterated in so many ways during the conference — you won't know who to go with. It probably helps that the company is trying to simplify things with its new global agency wheelhouse, New York-based Omnicom shop Nissan United.

Here are some global brand partnership guidelines from De Vries: exciting and engaging is obviously key; don’t do something exciting but that will alienate your customer base; whoever you partner with, your brand had better add to the experience; and you can’t hit it and quit it. You have to stick with it consistently. "To keep building our brand, we need to maintain that focus.” For global brands that means integrated communications, big value-add partnerships, flexibility, and a culture that encourages at least some moderate risk and experimentation, all of which Nissan does.

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