In Nissan's Heisman House, Bo knows chess and Baker Mayfield plants a (tiny) flag

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Bo Jackson plays chess in 'Nissan House' ad.
Bo Jackson plays chess in 'Nissan House' ad. Credit: Nissan

Nissan is not putting its Heisman House up for sale anytime soon. The automaker will stick with the college football campaign that fictionalizes ex-college stars living together, fraternity style, marking the eighth straight year of the effort.

In today's marketing environment, in which brands often switch campaigns on a yearly basis, eight years amounts to an eternity. But Erich Marx, Nissan North America's director for marketing, strategy and content, says the Heisman House campaign has built-in advantages that make it durable. The college football season "is only about four months each year so it's short-term in nature," he says. Also, "every year there is a new Heisman trophy winner, every year there is new blood in the house."

This year's slate includes seven ads, including one ad starring Cleveland Browns rookie Baker Mayfield, the former University of Oklahoma quarterback who won last year's Heisman, and another one with Bo Jackson. Other ex-Heisman winners appearing in the ads include Herschel Walker, Barry Sanders and Tim Tebow.

The Mayfield spot shows him planting a tiny Oklahoma flag in a sandwich made by Marcus Mariota, who won the 2014 Heisman while at the University of Oregon. Mayfield last year planted the Oklahoma flag on Ohio State's field after his Sooners took down the Buckeyes, a move that drew plenty of ire from Ohio State fans.

While not all viewers will catch the reference, it is an example of how Nissan tries to weave in "easter eggs" for hard-core college football enthusiasts, Marx says. "The non-fan would just think that it is just playful hijinks," he says. But the "real punchline is for the super fan who knows exactly what we are referring to."

The campaign, created by ESPN's in-house CreativeWorks unit, debuts tonight during the Northwestern-Purdue game on ESPN.

Nissan is in its 12th year sponsoring the Heisman Trophy Trust, which oversees the trophy as well as charitable programs. College sports is a big part of Nissan's marketing playbook. This year's Heisman House campaign will emphasize the automaker's Titan pickup, as well as its so-called "Intelligent Mobility" technology systems it puts in vehicles. But "while Titan is in the vast majority of our work this year, we try to make it a little more subtle and indirect," Marx says. "We just don't want to get in the way and make this into a sales campaign," he said. Rather, the goal is to associate the Nissan brand with the Heisman, he adds.

The campaign comes as Nissan North America attempts to recover from recently weak sales trends. Nissan brand sales fell nearly 16 percent in July and Nissan was about 6 percent in the year's first seven months, according to data from Automotive News.

ESPN and Nissan have a pretty good track record of luring the previous year's Heisman winner for the campaign, but haven't always succeeded. Lamar Jackson, who won the 2016 trophy while at the University of Louisville, declined to participate in last year's campaign. Jackson, now with the Baltimore Ravens, "turned us down not because he doesn't love us or love the campaign [but] because he wanted to focus on football," Marx says. "We are hopeful that we'll have him in the future."

Nissan also has a wide cast of previous Heisman winners to call on. This year's campaign includes two former Heisman winners who have not previously appeared: Jackson, who won the 1985 trophy while at Auburn, and Gino Torretta, the ex-University of Miami quarterback who won the Heisman in 1992. Jackson, of course, was a major ad star in his prime, best known for Nike's classic "Bo Knows" campaign that celebrated his multi-sport excellence.

Nissan's ad plays off that concept, but takes a less athletic approach that is perhaps more suitable for his current age. It shows him dominating in chess, Mahjong and Dungeons and Dragons.

Nissan has previously tried to lure Jackson, but he was conflicted due to relationships with other advertisers, Marx says, without naming names. (Kia used him a couple years ago in a Tecmo Bowl-themed ad.)

In addition to adding new players every year, Nissan tries to keep the campaign fresh with new elements. For instance, this year the brand created animated GIFs of Heisman winners in hopes that fans will spread them on social media. One GIF shows Mayfield planting a flag on the moon. Nissan hopes it will be used by both fans of the Sooners and Browns during big plays this year, Marx says. (Of course, many Browns fans are Ohio State fans, so it could bring back bad memories.)

Nissan

The Heisman house itself is an actual house in Pasadena, California that Nissan uses as result of an agreement with the owners, Marx says. "It looks like how a fraternity house might look," he says. This year's house is new to Nissan because "the other house we used for six years was recently sold and the new owners decided not to put it up for commercial use," he says.

Nissan has a portable version it brings to gameday sites, where it displays the Heisman trophy and lines up previous Heisman winners to appear. The first stop is at Notre Dame for Saturday's tilt between the Fighting Irish and Michigan Wolverines.

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