Nissan decides to build a brand.

A couple of weeks ago, Nissan launched a new brand campaign. Today Nissan made available a new commercial for the Leaf, their soon to be launched plug-in EV:

This is a wonderful commercial, it’s big, emotional and engaging. Before seeing it, I was certain that I didn’t want an EV, now I’m less certain, and I know for sure that I want to help that polar bear.  I admit that this commercial makes me think about Nissan a little differently; I’m not yet convinced that the company stands for “Innovation for all” but it’s a start.

Nissan has struggled over the years to establish a brand identity for itself. Automotive marketing history buffs can probably trace the issue back to the decision to change Datsun to Nissan in 1981.  In 1986, after a transition period, the brand was officially Nissan.

Since that time Nissan has struggled in the shadow of Toyota.  While Toyota steadily built a reputation for quality and reliability and smashed sales records, Nissan labored as the number two Japanese brand.  Nissan’s brand identity has never been clear and I suspect for many people it’s an simply an alternative to the better established Toyota.

The manufacturers in the vast middle of the market struggle with brand identity partially because they offer vehicles in so many different segments for so many different target customers.  The brands in the vast middle (Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet) find it difficult to define themselves because they must appeal so broadly. It’s tough to have a strong focused differentiating brand identity when you must appeal to everyone.

This lack of brand identity didn’t seem like a huge issue when the automobile business was selling 17 million units a year and Detroit was consistently on its heels with lousy products (relative to the Japanese) and uncompetitive pricing.  Even if Nissan didn’t get as many customers as Toyota, they got enough.

But the “new normal” sales level is in 11-13MM unit range.  Ford and Chevrolet are offering terrific products at competitive prices.  Hyundai and Kia have come out of the recession on tear, offering more terrific products, excellent pricing and growing reputations.  The fact is, it’s hard to buy a bad car in today’s market at any price point. So, if quality isn’t much of a differentiator anymore, what is?  Pricing? Potentially, but no one wants to put the incentive needle in again.

Design and styling will always be a one of the differentiators, although many would argue that in the “vast middle of the market” designs are pretty conservative because they have to appeal broadly (there’s that broad appeal problem again).  If not design and styling, what?

In the “new normal” market for vehicles; brand identity and marketing are the essential differentiators.  Creating leverage for your brand is critical in this hyper competitive marketplace.  Nissan clearly recognizes the importance of creating brand leverage, Jon Brancheau, VP Marketing,  said in Automotive News that they were:

“trying to figure out an intelligent way to consistently express the brand.  We have focused on individual models…But it hasn’t laddered up to help halo the Nissan brand. So strategically, we’re headed down a path to come up with a way to express ourselves and the Nissan brand in a consitent method.  The idea revolves around innovation…Innovation has always been what the Nissan brand is about.”

So Nissan is putting a stake in the ground, they’re going to stand for “innovation.” Here is the first commercial in the campaign, as well as a few others:

I admire Nissan for having the courage to stand for something.  If the Nissan brand can stand for “innovation” then they will have a leg up on their competition.  After all, Toyota has taken a hit from allegations of unintended acceleration and no other player in the vast middle of the market has a very well defined brand.

I’m not sure that consumers will give them credit for innovation at first, it seems like a bit of a leap. But over time, if they are consistent in their communications and show us why they are an innovative company our opinions will change.  I know that my opinion of Nissan has already shifted a bit based on that polar bear.

Nissan recognizes the potential of a strong differentiated brand and has obviously invested heavily in its new campaign, but more than anything, brand building requires time and commitment.  It will be interesting to see if they see it though.

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