Ad Researchers Wander Guns Shows, Hunting Expos and Wild Rivers

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DETROIT ( -- Nissan North America wasn't kidding when it decided to immerse its ad agency team in research to introduce its first full-size truck. The automaker sent an executive on a Montana fly-fishing trip
Agency researchers literaly went 'wild' to prepare for the $60 million launch of the Nissan Titan (top). TBWA/Chiat/Day art director Margaret Midgett-Keene checks out the cargo space of a competitor (middle). Meanwhile, in a shooting range frequented by truckers, associate creative director Juan Perez blasts off a few rounds (bottom).
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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.

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

For the so-called immersion program, which lasted from the summer 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, based in Playa del Rey, Calif., 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.

Talk of the office
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, Mr. Schwartz said. 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.

No surprise
Rich Rivera, group director of strategy on Nissan at TBWA who went on the fly-fishing trip, was perhaps the most savvy team member on full-size pickups. He had been 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.

Dirty Titans
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, while on-screen text touts its horsepower and towing abilities.

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

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