Datsun's name change to Nissan was rocky. Ad director Opre handled the thankless task dictated by Japan.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1971
Role: Director, advertising and sales promotion
Key influence: Handled Datsun-Nissan name change and Infiniti's "Rocks and Trees" campaign
He guided the brand-name switch from Datsun to Nissan in the 1980s. And he was involved — for better or worse — in the infamous “Rocks and Trees” advertising campaign, which tried to launch the Infiniti brand without showing any vehicles.
Opre joined Datsun in 1971 from American Motors' marketing department and quickly staked his claim in the young Japanese company's advertising effort. The company was growing fast — too fast for boutique agency Parker Advertising.
“We needed more service, and Parker had no research department, no real account services people,” Opre recalled. “Our intent was for John (Parker) to grow with us. We needed for him to expand, and he didn't want to.”
Parker wanted to stay small, so Opre dumped the agency for big-time firm William Esty in 1977. When Esty's media-buying power came up short, Opre replaced it with creative powerhouse Chiat/Day/Mojo.
But choosing agencies was nothing compared to being flung into the parent company's quest to change the brand's name in the United States from Datsun to Nissan. The parent's badge was used only in Japan. All exported cars were Datsuns.
Although a clear majority of Americans knew what Datsun was, few knew what Nissan represented. Changing the brand name would have catastrophic consequences, Opre and many others argued. But there was no fighting Tokyo.
Although not carried out until 1984, the name change had been in the works since 1981. Opre's team wrote the early project notes in longhand, so a typist wouldn't be in the room and possibly leak the reports to friends in the company.
The U.S. team made numerous recommendations, but Nissan Japan followed none of the advice. The result was a drawn-out fiasco that confused the public and hampered Nissan sales for years to come.
Said Opre: “Even our Japanese bosses in L.A. were disagreeing with the party line, but Japan vetoed all the ideas. I still don't know why they did that.”
Rocks and trees
Giving Nissan a brand image was one thing. Launching a luxury franchise was another. Along with Bill Bruce and Bob Thomas, Opre was part of the launch team for the Infiniti brand in the late 1980s, a group known as the Horizon Project.
“It was really heated and divided whether to do it,” said Opre, now 65 and retired. “We knew Toyota was going to do something. Honda already had Acura. But the parent company was going to do this no matter what.”
The early Infiniti products were no match for Acura and Lexus vehicles. As a result, Infiniti went contrary to the Advertising 101 maxim: Show the car. Instead, TV viewers saw serene panoramas and heard Zen koans about rocks and trees.
“I favored not showing the cars. We had nothing to show,” Opre said. “The Q45 was ugly, it had no grille. People hated the look. And the M30 was terrible. I still think it was the best tease campaign ever.”
While brand recognition soared, it did nothing to entice people to buy Infiniti cars. When the cars arrived, they didn't live up to the hype. Opre favored relenting and showing the cars, but he lost the boardroom brawl against other Nissan brass and the agency Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopolous.
Whether it was “Rocks and Trees” or inadequate products that doomed Infiniti to a decade of second-tier status is still debated today.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on