NISSAN REVERSES COURSE TO FOCUS ON THE PRODUCT: MR. K NOWHERE TO BE SEEN IN THREE NEW U.S. SPOTS

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Nissan Motor Corp. USA is revising its ad strategy, shifting its advertising to 70% product-focused and 30% branding.

In a striking creative departure, the first of three new national spots for Altima is minus Mr. K and returns to the marque's positioning of "affordable luxury" -- abandoned during the Mr. K branding push. The ads compare the Altima to a BMW 318ti.

The commercials from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., do continue the "Enjoy the ride" tag.

With slumping sales in the U.S. and Japan, parent Nissan Motor Co. has mapped out a plan built around sticking with its worldwide positioning statement of "dependability, quality and reliability," according to an executive close to Nissan.

DIFFERING INTERPRETATIONS

Each of the carmaker's three regions -- North America, Europe and Japan -- may interpret that umbrella strategy.

Nissan Europe will start breaking its first new ads in the U.K. in April; they also will focus on individual models, starting with Nissan's 1998 Micra.

"There is a new strategic direction in Europe," confirmed Neil Christie, clients services director for the U.K. market at TBWA Simons Palmer, London.

John Rinek, director of advertising at Nissan USA, said the European campaign will tout the dependability, quality and reliability message, and will be the carmaker's first pan-European message.

Nissan USA mismanaged the Altima launch by incorporating the product news into the branding campaign, said an executive involved in the effort.

`THE WRONG DECISION'

"It was a strategic decision that was probably the wrong decision to not treat Altima as a car launch but as another manifestation of the brand," the executive said. Spots that broke last summer -- and have been running since then -- show a farmer rejuvenated by driving the new Altima around his barnyard; another features a man seeking anonymity in the government's witness protection program attracting a crowd.

Nissan's smiling, brand personality Mr. K also isn't seen in new Maxima or Frontier spots, which instead tout features. Nissan said those spots also are airing nationally in addition to regionally.

Tom Patty, president of the agency and worldwide account director on Nissan, said carmaker and agency are now determining "how to use Mr. K in the future."

Nissan spends about $198 million on U.S. media advertising in the first nine months of 1997.

The shift comes just months after the departure of Bob Thomas, who resigned under pressure as president-CEO last October. Mr. Thomas was the driving force behind the branding campaign. He was succeeded by Minoru Nakamura, who had already been in charge of Nissan's North American umbrella unit.

Japan wants more direct control over Nissan here, auto analysts have said.

EVOLVING AD CAMPAIGN

"There isn't a revolution going on with us," said Brad Bradshaw, VP-marketing at Nissan. "Our brand campaign has kind of evolved to the product. Our important next step is to bridge the brand personality with the product."

TBWA Chiat/Day's goal is to develop a logical message with an emotional execution, Mr. Patty said, adding that the result would be "the [dependability, quality and reliability] message done in a very entertaining way."

The "Enjoy the Ride" campaign hasn't spiked sales. Sales in 1997 dropped 4.5% overall from 1996 levels, according to Automotive News.

But Mr. Patty said the advertising has increased awareness. Now that Nissan has wider awareness, Mr. Bradshaw said, it must interpret fun-to-drive benefits of each product in future ads.

Altima's 1997 sales also were disappointing, skidding to 144,483 vehicles vs. 147,910 in 1996, per Automotive News. Mr. Bradshaw said sales were off because Nissan cut Altima sales to fleet buyers, such as car rental companies.

Mr. Patty expects Altima to be recast as Nissan's "star car," which he described as "a hot product in a large, growing market segment" that sells better than any other in the line. But Altima competes in the most competitive auto segment, midsize sedans, which as a category is experiencing slumping sales.

In its home market of Japan, sales may fall short of 1 million for its fiscal year for the first time in 27 years. Nissan cited the increased sales tax in Japan that took effect last April as the main factor in the sales decline.

HEADHUNTER HIRED

In another development, TBWA Chiat/Day has hired a headhunter to fill the top U.S. account slot on Nissan. Rob Siltanen, Mr. Bradshaw said, has become the chief creative on the account, succeeding Lee Clow, the agency's chairman-chief creative officer worldwide. Mr. Clow had worked very closely with Mr. Thomas.

Nissan confirmed it has been getting inquiries from ad agencies seeking to take its business away from TBWA, but described that as "business as usual."

Contributing: Juliana Koranteng, London

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