Nissan Marketing VP Wants New Ads to Pass 'Barroom Test'

Special-Effect Laden Spots Designed to Work With Sound Off

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In a new campaign Nissan paints a harrowing picture of driving. Special-effect laden ads show massive storm clouds, pedestrian-packed streets and even an out-of-control driver that sneaks up on a Nissan like a shark.

In short, this ain't no joy ride. Instead, the automaker bypasses humor and sentimentality to portray driving as a stressful adventure filled with distractions that can be overcome by technology-fueled driver assistance systems.

The campaign keeps Nissan's "Innovation that Excites" global tagline. But the spots, which will air in the U.S., introduce a new marketing platform called "Take On." The goal is to position Nissan vehicles as taking on driving obstacles that are shown in ads in larger-than-life fashion. All the while, dramatic music plays in the background.

"Nissan is not a funny brand," said Jeremy Tucker, Nissan North America's VP for marketing, communications and media. "We needed to show the quality, dependability, the reliability, the performance and the handling and just the power of the brand," he added. "I was very clear in the brief: No humor." Instead, he called for a tone that was "epic, dramatic, captivating and simple. Simple, simple stories," he said.

Nissan's media budget will continue to rely heavily on sports programming. Because of that, ads were given what Mr. Tucker called the "barroom test," meaning they must be understood while watching at a bar. "I want the stories to be so simple, so epic and so breakthrough that if I'm sitting across the room at a bar and I can't hear the sound I know number one it's Nissan, and I know number two exactly what the story is about."

Mr. Tucker declined to reveal the media investment in the campaign, other than to say Nissan is boosting spending by double digits. Digital will account for 40% of spending, he said, and Nissan will deploy more programmatic buying. The Nissan brand got $689.7 million in measured media support in 2015, according to Kantar Media.

The new approach comes after a sometimes painful process in which Nissan leaders demanded changes from its agency team, which is handled by a dedicated Omnicom unit known as Nissan United that includes TBWAChiatDay, Zimmerman Advertising, OMD and other Omnicom agencies. In a March interview with Automotive News, Nissan's newly installed sales boss Christian Meunier critiqued Nissan's advertising as "vague," despite billions of dollars spent on ads in recent years. He said he was "really upset with the agency in the beginning," and described early ad proposals as "shit."

The automaker began making changes last month when it debuted new ads by Zimmerman touting safety. The so-called Tier 2 ads promoted a national sales event called "Safety Today," plugging features such as predictive forward collision warning and blind spot warning.

The full campaign rolling out now will include more than 30 new spots, including so-called Tier 1 ads that are meant to build brand equity.

As part of the marketing overhaul, Nissan is demanding greater collaboration from the Omnicom agencies. The goal is a consistent approach uniting Tier 1 ads, which are handled by TBWAChiatDay, and Tier 2 ads, which are handled by Zimmerman.

The automaker is also seeking better internal collaboration. For instance, Mr. Tucker has begun meeting monthly with Nissan leaders overseeing product planning and sales. The goal is to better align marketing with future vehicles. "Just like I'm busting silos on the agency side, I'm busting silos internally in the building," he said.

The new ads continue the recent safety push. One Sentra ad called "Shark" plugs a blind spot warning feature.

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Other so-called safety shield technologies are promoted in a spot for the Altima that dramatizes hazardous driving with pop-up figures of pedestrians, cyclists and construction workers appearing without warning.

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The safety messaging will mostly be used on sedans. Ads for crossovers and SUVs will spotlight versatility, such as a spot called "Angry Cloud" (at top) that plugs so-called intuitive all-wheel drive. Truck ads will highlight capability.

Nissan is seeking creative consistency by using similar techniques in all of the ads. For instance, the featured vehicle is always shown in red, which matches the color used for the "Innovation that Excites" tagline. The featured car also appears at the end of the ad, accompanied by two other Nissan vehicles shown in silver that offer the similar features at different price points.

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