Nissan Brings Back the Datsun Brand

Name Retired in 1981 Will Be Relaunched in India, Indonesia and Russia

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The Datsun Fairlady
The Datsun Fairlady

Datsun's back.

For those of you born after 1981, Datsun was the predecessor to the Nissan brand, a fondly remembered brand name consigned to the annals of automotive history more than a quarter-century ago. But the badge is being revived outside the U.S., Nissan said today, as Datsun becomes its third global brand after Nissan and Infiniti. The rollout is set for 2014 in India, Indonesia and Russia, aimed at what CEO Carlos Ghosn described during an announcement in Jakarta today as "optimistic up-and-coming customers in high-growth markets."

IHS Automotive senior analyst Aaron Bragman said the idea is to position Datsun at the low end of the market; Nissan as the mass-market, midpriced brand; and Infiniti at the high-end, near-luxury segment.

"We're seeing trending in China, with companies like Chevy, Buick and others saving those established brand names for higher-end cars," Mr. Bragman said. "Datsun is just a historical footnote to most people in this country."

Eddie Alterman, editor of Car and Driver magazine, has a similar take on the Datsun name. "It represented a budget enthusiast's car here -- the Z's and the 510s were great cars. But if you think about how Nissan has evolved in those emerging markets, it's a luxury brand, an aspirational brand, and it's smart for Nissan to maintain that . The name of that game is progressively higher prices."

Nissan debuted the Datsun nameplate in Japan in 1932, and it arrived in American showrooms more than 50 years ago. A breakthrough for the brand came in the late '60s, when the Datsun brought its sporty-looking 510 sedan to the states, priced at less than $2,000. Earlier in the decade, Nissan had hired little-known Los Angeles agency Parker Advertising to handle its ad spending, estimated at only $50,000 a year. But VP Yutaka Katayama personally created the introductory TV spot for the 510, which featured a beautiful woman driving the sedan in the rain through the hills of California's Big Sur, the car's windshield wipers clicking to the strains of Vivaldi.

According to a Nissan ad executive quoted in an Ad Age feature on Nissan in 2003, the 510 itself was a revolution, "a Yuppie car before the Yuppies had been properly identified." Datsun's 1968 sales were more than triple what they had been three years before, and about 300,000 510s were sold over the following five years. It was retired in 1981, Nissan said. The reasoning at the time was that the company could better compete with a single global brand -- Nissan.

A Datsun launch outside the U.S. makes sense for Nissan, which has been aggressively scouting for global opportunities. It has already partnered with Ashok Leyland in India and plans to build a new factory in Brazil, where it aims to triple market share by 2016. It was reported this month that Nissan and its partner Renault plan to develop models for the growing demand in Russia. The partners also hope to complete a deal soon to buy a majority stake in Russian carmaker AvtoVAZ. Russia's car and light-truck market expanded 39% in 2011, to 2.65 million vehicles, according to Automotive News Europe.

A closer-to-home push for auto-name resurrection -- although the intent is different from the Nissan/Datsun example -- is Chrysler's Dodge Dart, which goes on sale in May. The lead creative agency for the upcoming campaign will be Wieden & Kennedy, Portland.

"We're not trying to replicate the old Dart, other than the name," said Richard Cox, brand director for Dodge. The original Dart "had a great mainstream run from 1960 to 1976, and we sold close to 4 million. " he said. "It was a breakthrough compact car for the market."

Mr. Cox said that in Chrysler's market research, potential buyers under 35 who were shown prototypes of the car and a list of possible names liked Dart "because of its aggressive aerodynamics -- the glove just really fit."

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