As Nissan seeks a bigger foothold in the sizzling pickup truck market, the Japanese automaker is making an unusual call-out to more dominant U.S. brands. But whether or not the first TV ad for the all-new Titan XD comes off as a tribute to Chevy, Ford and Dodge -- or a backhanded compliment -- will be left to viewers to decide.
The campaign broke Monday night during the College Football Playoff National Championship game on ESPN. The 90-second ad, called "Shoulders of Giants," begins with an emotional tone, showing children idolizing parents, firefighters, astronauts and athletes. Then, the kicker: "To those who go before us -- Chevy, Ford, Dodge. Thank you. We see the way forward."
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At first glance the ad might appear to be taking a subtle shot at the competition. After all, the Chevy, Ford and Dodge trucks shown are all old and a bit dusty. Meanwhile, Nissan's Titan XD appears at the end of the ad bright and shiny, barreling out of a garage into a scenic mountain range.
But Nissan executives said the ad is meant to honor their more established foes, rather than bash them, and truck enthusiasts who watch the ad closely will get that. "We know and understand in the truck world that you have to show respect to earn respect of a typical truck buyer," said Fred Diaz, Nissan North America's division VP and general manager for trucks and light commercial vehicles. "And we wanted to to do that in a very true and authentic way without it at all coming across that we are giving a backhanded compliment to our competitors."
The older trucks in the ad were picked because "those trucks are actually icons in truck culture, so each one of them represents an evolution for trucks," said Jeremy Tucker, Nissan North America's VP of marketing communications and media.
The competing trucks shown include the 1972 Chevy C10, which was known for bridging the gap between a work truck and a daily driving vehicle, Nissan executives said. Also shown is a 1985 Dodge truck that was the first truck with a Cummins diesel engine (the Titan XD uses a Cummins 5.0L V8 Turbo Diesel); and a 1995 Ford F-150 that was co-branded with Eddie Bauer and a had a luxury interior, Nissan executives said.
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"Each of these trucks are worthy of genuine recognition. And from a Nissan perspective, we look forward to being included among them in the future," Mr. Tucker said.
If Nissan's truck is mentioned in the same conversation as Chevy, Ford and Dodge, that would be a victory, considering the stranglehold the three brands have on the market. The Ford F series led all truck sales in 2015 with 780,354 vehicles, followed by Chevrolet Silverado (600,544) and Dodge's Ram pickup (451,116), according to Ad Age affiliate Automotive News.
Nissan's Titan XD aims to hit a sweet spot in the truck market with a truck that is big, but not too big. In an interview with Automotive News late last year, IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley described it as a "tweener" strategy: "There are people every year who buy light-duty pickups and wish they had gotten a bigger truck," Brinley told Automotive News. "And people who buy medium-duty pickups and wish they had gotten something smaller. Nissan estimates there about 150,000 of those buyers a year. If they could capture half of them, they'll be doing great."
"We've positioned this truck with the refinement of a light-duty but the capability of a heavy-duty, which gives you the best of both worlds," Mr. Diaz told Ad Age. Asked about sales goals, he said Nissan does not have a "false premise that we are going to come in here and overtake the big three domestic [brands] overnight." Rather, Nissan wants to make a statement that "we are here to compete and we have a truck that will compete," he said.
Marketing will play up the truck's U.S. roots, calling it the "American Titan." That is a nod to the fact that it was planned in Tennessee (where Nissan North America is based), designed in California, engineered in Michigan, tested in Arizona and assembled in Mississippi, according to Nissan.
The campaign's debut during the National Championship game continues Nissan's marketing strategy of targeting big sports and cultural events. Last year's championship game between Ohio State and Oregon drew more than 33 million viewers.
This year's contest between Clemson and Alabama is not as interregional, featuring two teams from the South. But that plays right into Nissan's favor, Mr. Tucker suggested. "If you think about where our consumers are," he said, "the South definitely is truck country."