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NISSAN'S U.S. HERO HAS HIS DAY TWO DECADES LATER, EXEC HONORED IN CRITICAL BRAND-BUILDING EFFORT

By Published on .

It has become commonplace for chief executives to act as ad spokespersons for their companies-Dave Thomas of Wendy's, for example, or Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines. And who can forget Lee Iacocca's memorable challenge for Chrysler Corp., "If you can find a better car, buy it."

But a CEO who was tossed out 21 years ago? That's the story with 86-year-old Yutaka Katayama, the first CEO of Nissan Motor Corp. USA.

DATSUN HERITAGE

In its new $200 million brand-building campaign, Nissan has set out to remind people of its Datsun heritage by focusing on Mr. Katayama, the man who led Datsun's charge into the U.S. (AA, Aug. 5).

That his Japanese bosses tired of their stubborn protege and dethroned him in 1975 does not matter. Nissan is paying tribute to the man who made Datsun what it is-and, as some insiders note, what Nissan hasn't been since.

"It surprised me when they told me about the ads. I feel very honored but I've never been an icon," Mr. Katayama said in an interview. "I don't feel like a legend. But when I count my age, I guess I am."

Although Mr. Katayama isn't actually in the ads-an actor plays the part of "Mr. K"-his mentality is ingrained in the character and advertising message.

CULT OF PERSONALITY

In getting acquainted with Nissan's history in the U.S., Nissan President Robert Thomas found Mr. Katayama had developed a cult of personality with his employees and customers.

"People loved this guy. They'd die for him," Mr. Thomas said. "He was the personification of what Datsun was all about."

One main reason was that Mr. Katayama immediately and wholeheartedly embraced U.S. culture when he arrived here in 1958-he loved the diversity, freedom, customs and food. And he especially loved the wide-open freeways, where his lead-footed driving style quickly put him on a first-name basis with many local police officers.

LEARNED IN AMERICA

"I learned how to sell cars in America," Mr. Katayama remembered. "I wasn't some Japanese boy who came over with some magic ginseng pills and taught everyone how to sell cars. If I did one thing right, it was to come down the steps from my office and ask for help."

Despite this humility, Mr. Katayama was a leader. He said his philosophy is to "lead the troops into the field, not push them."

No task was too small in his job; when Datsun's early distribution system hit a snag, Mr. Katayama delivered Datsuns to dealerships himself.

He ingratiated himself with the used-car dealers he recruited to sell Datsun vehicles, wanting the same pioneer spirit of the company to be represented in its hungry dealers.

"His rule was `The dealer makes money, then we make money.' It hasn't been that way with any automaker lately," said Fred Miller, who signed on as a Los Angeles-area Datsun dealer in 1966.

COMPANY WITH A HEART

"This guy flew kites and painted watercolors. I mean, this is a car company CEO? He showed that a company could have a heart," Mr. Miller added.

But Mr. Katayama's superiors tired of their U.S. chief. He was recalled to Japan in 1975 and moved sideways in the company, where he quietly chaired Nissan's Japanese advertising agency until he retired in 1988.

He still makes several trips a year to the U.S. to attend Nissan Z Club rallies. And even at age 86, he likes to torch the American roads. He's an active member of the Sports Car Club of Japan.

He's a throwback to the age of small, simple Japanese cars. His favorites are the old Datsun 240Z and 510. The newer cars, "with all those black boxes and spaghetti under the hood ... are OK for a family maybe, or for a woman to drive to the store."

But a real driver drives a sports car. That's why, when Nissan stopped building purists' sports cars, Mr. Katayama bought a Mazda Miata.

MARKETING SUICIDE

Originally, Nissan Japan wanted to name the first 240Z the Fairlady, its name in Japan. Mr. Katayama insisted that would be marketing suicide in the U.S.

When the first batch of cars arrived with Fairlady badging, he ordered the name replaced with hand-made 240Z emblems. Nissan Japan finally relented.

Although the 300ZX is finished and the 240SX is fading quickly in the U.S. market, Mr. Katayama feels the current, sedan-oriented Nissan product line could be just as sporty-feeling as those of the good old days.

"A sports car is not just the shape of the car," he said. "Even a truck can be sporty. That's why we put an overhead-cam engine and torsion bar suspensions in the very first trucks.

"Sports-minded people will feel it and understand it."

Mr. Rechtin is a reporter with sister publication Automotive News.

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