ADVERTISING CAN'T WORK MIRACLES

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I read where Nissan wants to restore heritage to its cars in the U.S. The problem is all the automaker's heritage stems from the time when it was Datsun.

By referring to its roots, Nissan is just going to get people to remember the Datsun nameplate, most specifically, the Datsun 240Z sports car.

As I recall, Nissan called its cars Datsun in the U.S. because the company didn't want to besmirch the Nissan name if they failed to sell. In the early '80s, when Datsun was entrenched, Japanese management decided to switch to the worldwide Nissan name. Big mistake.

Now, 15 years later, Nissan and its ad agency worry that the company botched the job. "When we changed .*.*. we lost all our heritage. We could have done the transition so much better. This is our way of getting our heritage back," says Nissan U.S. President Robert Thomas.

The current Nissan agency, TBWA Chiat/Day, even blames the old agency for the heritage-less problem today. (Cheap shot; it can't very easily blame the client for the fateful decision.)

The old William Esty Co. "dragged it out over many years," Lee Clow, chief creative officer, told this family newspaper. "They passed along none of the equity of Datsun to Nissan."

The new campaign aims to rectify the situation by introducing a character based on the charismatic salesman who ran Nissan Motor Co.'s U.S. operation in the '60s and '70s. He takes us down memory lane by showing old cars that created, at least in Nissan's mind, the company's heritage.

My advice is: Go all the way and bring back the Datsun nameplate. Nissan would become the name of the auto company that makes Datsun and Infiniti. People who grew up with Datsun will always have a higher recognition for Datsun than Nissan. Maybe that's the real strategy-to get buyers ready for the second coming of Datsun.

I also read where General Motors' Saturn division is bringing out a mid-sized model in three years, at a cost of $900 million. Saturn management said they presently don't have a car Saturn owners can trade up to.

Wait a minute. I thought Alfred Sloan's idea was to have people trade up to another GM division, but the current strategy seems determined to offer as many choices as possible within each division. And then the newly installed brand managers are supposed to make sense out of all this chaos.

GM, it appears to me, has the marketing function backwards.

GM's idea of marketing is to allow each division to field as many models as it can convince GM brass it needs, and then the brand managers are supposed to work their magic by devising distinctive claims for basically the same cars.

The lesson here for both Nissan and GM is that advertising can't work miracles. Nissan ads can't be expected to create an instant heritage for Nissan when everyone knows its real heritage is Datsun. And GM's brand managers can't be expected to carve out differences within and between divisions when in fact none exits.

Advertising isn't smoke and mirrors, even if some people continue to think of it in that highly pejorative way.

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