CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- When news hit last week that Nissan was plucking Hyundai's Joel Ewanick to be its new marketing chief, it didn't take veteran auto analyst John Wolkonowicz long to discern what the No. 3 Japanese automaker was up to.
"They're hiring the most aggressive marketer in the category to go after Toyota," said IHS Global Insight's Mr. Wolkonowicz. "They see an opportunity to regain past glory by going after queasy Toyota owners."
For that, the automaker may just have found the right man in Mr. Ewanick, No. 14 on Ad Age's Power Players list and the driving force behind the many programs that netted Hyundai Ad Age's Marketer of the Year honors in 2009. Executives who have worked with Mr. Ewanick say he's not only innovative and fearless, but a shrewd politician with a knack for steering bold ideas through intercontinental decision-making structures with speed.
"He has a real focus on being aggressive, spending some money and making a difference in sales, and he's good at seeing the world through the eyes of the people who buy the cars," said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Omnicom's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which has worked with him both at Hyundai and Porsche North America.
Case in point: The groundbreaking "Hyundai Assurance" program, which offered buyers their money back if they lost their jobs. "One day he came to me and told me that there was this program that would allow people to take a car back without damaging their credit, and he wanted to know if it was a good idea," recalled Mr. Goodby. "I said, 'You can do that?' He said, 'I think we can.' And the next thing I knew, we were advertising it."
Victory from Toyota
The program doubled the percentage of car buyers willing to buy a Hyundai during the last recession and stoked a surge that's continuing: Dealer deliveries were up 113% in the first two months of this year, and Hyundai now ranks No. 1 in brand loyalty, surpassing Toyota amid the No. 1 automaker's ongoing quality-control crisis.
That surge has positioned Hyundai as perhaps the likeliest beneficiary of Toyota's bleeding, but, according to Mr. Wolkonowicz, Mr. Ewanick's new employer may be even better situated.
The reason, he argues, is generational. Nissan -- then marketed as Datsun -- was the No. 1 Japanese import for much of the 1970s, when it enjoyed a well-earned reputation for making quality cars, and there may be a significant number of drivers in Toyota's boomer base who still have positive feelings about the brand even if they've stopped buying the cars. "Nissan is the one they've forgotten about," he said. "They're going to try to remind people of that now."
There are already signs Nissan is well-positioned to do that. In February, it posted an industry-best 38.1% sales increase from the year-earlier period (Toyota sales dropped 10%; Hyundai's rose 24.7%), nearly 20% better than its January gains, according to Edmunds.com.
The brand was No. 5 in the industry in February, according to Automotive News, and its market share climbed to 8%, up from 7% in February 2009. Toyota, by contrast, had 13.4%.
Ready to fight
Christopher Cedergren, managing partner at consumer-insight firm Iceology, said that Mr. Ewanick's hiring, coming after his predecessor, Christian Meunier, was promoted to president of Nissan Brazil, makes it clear the automaker is readying an offensive.
"The idea is to build Nissan into a much more powerful brand than it is right now and take advantage of some opportunity out there," he said.
Mr. Ewanick will also be onboard at Nissan as it launches Leaf, its mass-market electric car. "Nissan could see share increase pretty significantly. And you have to add in the potential impact of the Leaf," said Mr. Cedergren.
With regard to its marketing and messaging, he said Nissan needs to make "damn sure" it differentiates itself from Toyota and Honda, which tend to rely more on rational than emotional appeals.