NASHVILLE -- A Japanese press report claims that Nissan Motor Co. intends to resurrect its old "Datsun" brand name for certain emerging markets.
Nissan officials decline to discuss the buzz as they prepare to announce a new round of global product initiatives later this month. But according to the reports, Datsun would become a sort of "underbrand," a portfolio of low-priced autos in undeveloped markets -- specifically not North America, Europe or Japan.
No one in the car business is going to get rich second-guessing Carlos Ghosn. But this idea is not immediately crystal clear.
Nissan spent half a decade trying to stuff the Datsun name in a box and get rid of it back in the 1980s. In the interest of unifying its global identity, Nissan spent considerable ad dollars explaining the name change. Marketing types warned that Nissan would never recover from the confusion it would cause American consumers.
Graduate school management professors warned that it was a terrible mistake.
Datsun dealers grumbled for years about giving up their well-established brand equity. Nissan executives patiently explained that it was primarily America that was out of step on the matter. Around the globe, Nissan was known as Nissan, they pointed out. And the real mistake had been to use the name "Datsun" in the United States in the first place.
"Datsun" was an old pet name among Nissan executives when the company shyly attempted its first U.S. sales in the 1950s. And then, suddenly, it was too late to change it.
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Nissan obviously survived the name reboot. Almost 30 years later, Nissan is still growing. And now its current "Power 88" business plan alludes vaguely to introducing new products to accelerate the company's growth and serve a growing number of customers. The recent media report speaks of India, Indonesia and Russia.
But here's where it's murky.
If Nissan wants more business in markets where it is not fully established, isn't that all the more reason to use its real name, rather than an unfamiliar brand name that the company went out of its way to discontinue?
And if Nissan's plan is to establish a market for ultra-low-end vehicles, and it doesn't want consumers to be confused between those products and the Altimas and Rogues it sells elsewhere, will two different marques really matter? The products will sell on different sides of the globe, according to the plan. Theoretically, any Americans who are still pining for the lost name Datsun would never see the cars being sold in Indonesia anyway.
If all that is true, the bigger challenge in the years to come could be what to do with satisfied Datsun customers in Indonesia and India. Will they step up to a Nissan product? Will they even see the connection between Datsun and Nissan? Or will Nissan be forced to go through the same brand-name confusion there that it went through in America 30 years ago?