Nissan’s marketing VP on restoring a ‘damaged’ brand and how COVID-19 changed the way people view cars
After weeks of running COVID-19 response ads, Nissan is coming back to TV with some more normal marketing. A spot starring Brie Larson hits the airwaves on June 15, as the automaker seeks to spur sales dampened by the pandemic and restore the long-term image of its brand, which a top executive recently called “damaged.”
The spot from TBWA\Chiat\Day plugs the all-new Sentra. It was shot pre-coronavirus and had actually aired for a couple weeks in March. But Nissan, like all automakers, by mid-March pulled its normal ads in favor of messaging explaining how it was responding to the pandemic, including offering payment deferral plans.
“What we saw at the very beginning was demand declined immediately, and it was swift and it was deep,” says Allyson Witherspoon, VP of marketing communications and media at Nissan North America. But, as she explains on the latest edition of Ad Age’s “Ad Lib” podcast, the automaker has kept a close eye on consumer sentiment, which has been improving. “Once you started to see week-over-week improvements in some of those key digital metrics, it was clear we needed to quickly pivot.”
While the pandemic hit all automakers hard, it came at a particularly bad time for Nissan as it tries to reverse tumbling sales trends. Nissan Group’s U.S. sales fell 30 percent year-to-date through March, while its market share shrank to 7.3 percent from 9.1 percent, according to Automotive News. The redesigned Sentra is part of a new product push in the U.S. that is a key part of the automaker’s global comeback plan, called “Nissan Next.”
The ad, starring Larson. shows her counseling a woman against compromising in her career plans. She hops into a Sentra driven by the actress who tells her, “If this Nissan Sentra isn’t going to compromise, why should you.” The strategy is to portray the mid-sized sedan as offering attractive design, handling and performance at an affordable price. (The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is about $19,000, according to Nissan.)
“Obviously Brie is a superhero both in her personal life as well as professionally,” Witherspoon says on the podcast, referencing the actress’ role playing Captain Marvel in the 2019 superhero flick. “She was the right choice right from the very beginning to help tell the story.”
Nissan could use a superhero effort to help lift its sagging brand. “We are discovering the difficulty of restoring a brand that has been damaged,” Nissan Motor Co. CEO Makoto Uchida recently stated in a blunt assessment about its U.S. trends.
Asked on the podcast about Uchida's take, Witherspoon says: “Over the past few years our brand has become more and more known to be discount[ed]—and to be known as the car that you could get cheaply. I don’t think we have done a very good job talking about the consumer benefits of the car, or the different technology we are adding. I also think we have suffered in that our product lifecycle is a little bit older in what you typically see in automotive.”
She adds: “I think what is exciting right now is we are on the verge of a product offensive. Over the next eight months we will have refreshed 70 percent of our lineup, which in automotive is huge.”
In the short-term, the pandemic depressed sales, as dealerships closed and people stayed close to home. “Over 30 percent of our dealer network was closed due to local restrictions. It removed the ability even to go to a dealership,” Witherspoon says.
But the pandemic also forced people to look at cars in a new way, which she suggests could help the category.
“The role of the car is changing. In the short term, what I think you are going to see is ... fewer and fewer people travel via air, and you are going to see, especially this summer, a lot of summer vacations, getting back out on the road,” she says on the podcast. “The car provides a safe place right now, and especially if you are wanting to stay safe and you still want to get out of the home that you’ve been in for the last couple months, the car can provide that.”
Nissan leaned into the insight in May with an ad spotlighting how cars are being used for socially distanced celebrations. The spot, from TBWA\Chiat\Day, is backed by Randy Newman’s quarantine-themed track, “Stay Away.”
Of course, Nissan does not want people staying away from dealerships. One way Nissan dealers are trying to restore confidence is by using social media, including Facebook, to livestream demonstrations of actions dealers are taking to increase safety, such as keeping cars clean and offering home drop-off and delivery services.
“There is real fear in going to some of these physical places,” Witherspoon says. “And the more that we can explain what we are doing to alleviate that fear, the more likely they are to want to come in and be able to come into the dealerships.”