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Nissan Searches for Brand in All the Wrong Places

April 5, 2016

Nissan.jpgIn January of this year, Nissan named Christian Meunier as head of Sales and Marketing for its US markets. And, boy is he pissed. According to Advertising Age, his first order of business was to sequester all his advertising agencies (more than three of them) into one room; tell them their work sucks and they need to fix it fast. He claimed, “… our brand is very vague. People don’t know what Nissan is all about.” The story goes that he left them to collaborate with each other for a week, only to return and find their new ideas were “shit”. Then he returned after two more weeks to find still more “shit”. He gave them one more week. And, apparently, they came through for him because they’re about to roll out the new campaign. But is this really the way to define your brand?

I find it difficult to believe you can solve a branding problem by posing an advertising challenge. The two are related but, still, completely separate disciplines, with different mindsets. Advertising is a broadcast-style, one-to-many form of communication. The brand is what is doing the communicating. People like advertising, when it’s good, but they form relationships with brands, in part, because of the communication that the brands do. But you can’t just create a single message and expect that alone to completely define the brand behind it. It takes a lot more time and hard work to establish a brand.

A man can tell a woman that he loves her. But is it true? Is he just kidding himself, mistaking lust for love? Or, worse, is he lying? The wise woman gives it some time. She hears what else he has to say. She asks around and accumulates more evidence before making a decision about how she feels about this guy.

Brands are like that. We need to hear several marketing messages before we make a decision about a brand. More than that, we need to see the brand in action. We need to hear how others have experienced it. Is it a mensch or a cad?

NissanChristian.jpgIt’s true nobody get’s Nissan. It launched its line of automobiles, in the US, as Datsun in 1969. The reasons behind that choice of names has to do with a lot of corporate infighting, bad choices and the desire to distance the cars from Nissan’s WWII history of military manufacturing. Eventually, when the war was far enough into the rearview, and the whole country was confused about the brand, Nissan attempted to restore some simplicity by dropping the Datsun name. But the damage had been done. Nissan remained a me-too Japanese brand behind giants Honda and Toyota.

Nissan attempted to brand its line as performance vehicles by rolling out a sports car offering to serve as the line’s flagship. That was, in 1969, the Datsun 240Z. Today’s Nissan 370Z is the direct descendant and, when you allow for a few styling changes and new technology, the car really hasn’t advanced that much in the intervening decades. And it is Honda, not Nissan, that supplies engines to the IndyCar circuit. Nissan never was able to leverage that performance angle or anything else, for that matter, to move them beyond the meh, gray, nondescript brand that they are.

It’s no use terrorizing your advertising guys until they soil themselves. If your brand is vague, you have to address that problem directly. Conduct a formal brand exploration. Talk to your customers. Talk to people who looked at your brand but bought something else. Talk to car buyers who never even considered a Nissan. Talk to all your constituencies. Measure yourself against your competition. Conduct a full audit of your communications including, yes, your advertising. Maybe you have too many ad agencies? Maybe that’s contributing to the problem, making it difficult to project a consistent point of view?

Bottom line, find out, once and for all, who you are. Determine your unique, differentiating brand promise. Then own it. If you need to, plan a strategy to get from where you are to where you want to be. Make sure it’s a realistic plan.

Then … and only then … is it possible to create an advertising message that's likely to carry your brand forward.

Best Branding Reads – Week of April 4, 2016

Finding Employee Brand Evangelists
If you let them, your employees will champion your brand.

 Musk Unveils Tesla Model 3 with Much Fanfare—and Vague Delivery Date
Tesla lives up to its brand promise: No promises. 

Game Plan: MLB Makes Strong Marketing Pitch as Season Set to Open
Those of us who love baseball always dread any effort to “improve” it.

4 Questions That Unlock Brand Potential
You’ll find these questions about your brand are tough to answer. But answer them, you must.

The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding
Sigh. Another article about color in marketing. Take with a grain of salt.

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I find this redesign much more refreshing than the reviewer does.

Why “digital strategy” should be nixed from your lexicon
First there was marketing. Then there was “digital marketing”. Now, thankfully, it’s just marketing again.

Tags communication, Positioning, Strategy

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