Nissan delves into truck owner psyche

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Nissan North America wasn't kidding when it decided to immerse its agency team in research to introduce its first full-size truck. It sent Rich Rivera, group director of strategy on Nissan at TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., on a Montana fly-fishing trip to query fisherman on truck preferences-while in the water with them wearing waders.

That was just one part of an extensive research program Nissan embarked upon to prepare for the $60 million launch of Titan, its first entry into a highly brand-loyal category dominated by Detroit, in order to understand the psyche of full-size truck owners.

We "went to where truck guys hang out," said Fred Suckow, marketing director of the Nissan brand. "We went into people's houses and talked about trucks."

For the so-called "immersion" program, which lasted from the summer of 2002 to late that year, a team of 20 cross-functional TBWA staffers split up into small groups that conducted interviews during out-of-state trips to hunting expos, gun shows, at area Super Cross events and in Montana rivers. The research was bolstered by more traditional focus groups, augmented by ethnography, or in-depth visits to owners' homes and workplaces.

The Omnicom Group agency also rented competitors' pickups for a month, and each team drove them, some towing trailers. Carol Potter, account director, recalled her harried maneuvering around TBWA's parking lot of a Chevrolet Heavy Duty truck. But she said the experience taught her and the team "the unique driving experience" of a full-size pickup.

knowing the enemy

Rob Schwartz, worldwide creative director on Nissan, chuckled recalling petite female team members climbing out of the trucks and the pickup's big beds sticking out of compact-car parking spaces in the agency's lot. The experiences created much hallway talk inside the shop and "we learned who the enemy was."

The agency came back with several insights. Among them: The mainly male buyers of full-size trucks love to cite the vehicle's specifications, such as horsepower and towing capacity, said Mr. Schwartz. But "behind the stats is this major hunk of emotion. It's such a male-dominated category and it may be the only way they can express their emotion is with this logic."

Ms. Potter said the biggest difference between full-size truck owners and other vehicle owners is the pickups are truly part of their lifestyle, whether for work or play. They're also very proud of their pickups and would never drive a car.

Mr. Rivera was perhaps the most savvy team member on full-size pickups since he was media director on Ford Motor Co.'s Ford trucks at WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Detroit, for three years until 1993. He said the biggest surprise of the research "was no surprise" because "a truck guy is a truck guy."

They have the same broad, similar interests. But the research wasn't a waste of time because it reconfirmed the agency's assumptions and it helped his media planning. He added new media properties, including hunting and fishing TV programming.

Mr. Schwartz said the research helped his creative team develop the strategy "to fit in [the truck segment] but stand out." So the launch commercials, which broke on Thanksgiving, show the Titan's 180-degree swinging rear door and floor shift which is not on the steering column like competitors' brands.

unusual approaches

The research revealed truck owners want to see what the Titans can do, so the ads show dirty Titans in action, sloshing through mud and driving up inclines. Supers tout its horsepower and towing abilities.

Nissan has targeted sales of 100,000 Titans in its first full year in 2004.

Other carmakers and auto ad agencies have taken unusual approaches to research. Before designing the latest version of Toyota Motor Sales USA's Sienna minivan, chief engineer Yuji Yokoya drove its predecessor for thousands of miles throughout North America. His mission was to test the merits and weaknesses of the outgoing model and its competitors.

The agency for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet brand, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., has done anthropological research for about a decade, a spokesman said. A hired anthropologist visits people's homes or joins family car trips to get "richer content about the brand decisions people make and why they make them" than the former demographic research the agency had used. The hired guns aren't called in for every campaign.

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