Nissan's 'Heisman House' campaign plugs e-commerce with a big prank

‘Nissan@Home’ allows consumers to buy vehicles from start-to-finish online—an option more are craving

Published On
Sep 01, 2021

Editor's Pick

Nissan will use the college football season—and one of its biggest campaigns of the year—to push its new online shopping tool, in another sign that automakers are getting serious about digital retailing.

While shoppers have long researched cars online, the path to purchase has usually included stops at dealerships to test drive cars, finalize deals and sign paperwork. Nissan’s tool—called Nissan@Home—allows buyers to perform all those tasks online, including scheduling test drives for vehicles that are delivered to homes in partnership with local Nissan dealers. The automaker rolled the program out in the spring. Now, it is trying to gain more widespread attention by making it a key plank in its annual “Heisman House” college football campaign that is entering its 11th season.

The campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day New York sticks to its long-running lighthearted theme of portraying previous Heisman winners sharing a house, fraternity-style. One ad shows the 2020 Heisman winner DeVonta Smith going through a bit of a hazing ritual that ends with Baker Mayfield tricking him into ordering 40 Nissan Pathfinders using Nissan@Home—with all the SUVs showing up at once at the front door of the Heisman House.

Smith, the former University of Alabama wide receiver who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, also plugs the e-commerce service in a spot that promotes the 2022 Nissan Frontier—and his pass-catching ability.


The campaign marks the first big national marketing push for Nissan@Home. The service is now used by 460 of Nissan's 1,073 U.S. dealers,  Automotive News reported this week.

Nissan will begin a dedicated campaign for Nissan@Home in November but the automaker wanted to introduce it with its college football marketing because it reaches a younger, more digitally savvy audience, says Allyson Witherspoon, VP and U.S. chief marketing officer at Nissan. “These are more of the digital natives and so it felt like a natural fit,” she says.

Nissan@Home was in the works before the pandemic struck last year, but COVID-19 accelerated its development, as dealership closures led to more interest in online auto purchases, Witherspoon says.

State franchise laws generally prohibit automakers from selling directly to consumers, although electric vehicle startups such as Tesla have carved out exceptions allowing for their e-commerce models to flourish. Nissan@Home relies heavily on dealer involvement, Witherspoon says. “This isn’t factory versus the dealer—this is all done through the dealer. For us it’s done very much hand-in-hand,” she says. 

She expects consumer demand for completing purchases completely online to be “small at first.” She predicts that over time it could evolve into the “primary experience,” but adds that “I think there are always going to be people that will want to go through the dealership and do test drives.”

Car shoppers for years have been cutting back on in-person car shopping, with the average buyer now only visiting two dealerships in the vehicle buying process, down from 2.7 in 2016, according to a study released earlier this year by Cox Automotive. Still, automotive e-commerce remains in its infancy: Cox reports that only one in three franchised automobile dealers in the U.S. offer all the purchase steps online.

That people would buy cars entirely online seemed like a longshot as recently as five years ago because of the perception that they are such a “physical product” that people want to see in person, says John Loehr, a managing director in the automotive and industrial practice at global consultancy AlixPartners. Plus there are complications such as figuring out trade-ins. “The analytics have gotten very good, consumers have gotten more comfortable with it," he says. "COVID has certainly accelerated it but there were forays into this direction even before COVID.”

On-campus tours return

Nissan’s inclusion of Nissan@Home into its “Heisman House” campaign is significant as it is among the automaker’s most closely-watched annual marketing efforts. Nissan each year adds elements to keep it fresh. This season Nissan and TBWA sourced ad ideas from a decade’s worth of tweets referencing “Heisman House,” which led to 10 storylines. 

One ad is in response to a fan wondering who would win a spikeball tournament. It shows Mayfield, Desmond Howard and Bo Jackson playing the game. Barry Sanders joins in but soon hands the ball to a referee (a reference to his famous refusal to engage in touchdown celebrations when he played).


Nissan also says it will amp up support of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) via sponsorships with Grambling State University, Hampton University, Howard University, North Carolina A&T State University, Southern University and A&M College, and Tennessee State University. Hampton and TSU are part of Nissan’s “Heisman House Tour,” which involves on-campus marketing surrounding games.

Last year, because of COVID, Nissan canceled the tour and shifted some of its college football marketing dollars to the NFL as colleges dealt with fan limitations and canceled games. Witherspoon says Nissan will bring its college football media spending to normal levels this year. “We are increasing our investment in sports in total,” Witherspoon says, without divulging figures.

This year, Nissan built a new mobile Heisman House designed to keep the marketing experience outdoors. It will also continue using a virtual Heisman House that it created last season.