One of the most surprising commercials from Nis-san's advertising agency, TBWA Chiat/Day of Venice, Calif., in the past year was an Altima spot that was nothing short of surreal.
The commercial featured Ameri-can icon Johnny Cash, dressed in his traditional black outlaw outfit, standing in front of an assembly line in the Smyrna, Tenn., plant of Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. Johnny belted out a countrified version of the theme from 'Laverne and Shirley' while factory workers chimed in.
That marketing meld of down-home U.S. imagery and Japanese carmaking has become quite familiar to buyers in recent years. Sixteen years after the Japanese began to build their vehicles here, they are still working to make their companies and their brand identities as American as possible.
In some cases, it is advertising magic and public relations - such as Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.'s magazine ads showing its involvement in small U.S. communities.
But in other ways, localizing has been an earnest and expensive process of investing millions in American design studios, engineering companies, product research and vehicle development offices to deepen the companies' roots on this continent.
The pursuit began with manufacturing plants that are now scattered across the country, from NUMMI, the Toyota-General Motors joint venture in Fremont, Calif., to Nissan's Tennessee plant. But the Americanization eventually moved beyond merely operating assembly plants in the countryside.
Different factors influenced the expansion efforts, such as import tariffs and a fluctuating yen-dollar exchange rate.
A greater factor was simply logistics.
In order to work with key U.S. suppliers, the automakers had to have more personnel here. And to better monitor changing U.S. consumer tastes, the manufacturers had to walk among their customers.
Yet many people who buy a Honda or a Nissan are still oblivious to the depth of the companies' U.S. involvement. Hence the continuous advertising push.
'We recognize that it is better to err on the side of being recognized as an American company than for consumers to be ambivalent about the subject,' notes Gerry Rubin, a partner in American Honda's longtime advertising agency Rubin Postaer & Associates in Santa Monica, Calif.
'It is less and less necessary from a competitive standpoint to be considered an American-based car company,' Rubin said. 'The 'Buy American' fervor is no longer as rampant as it once was. And because of the size and importance of the automotive purchase, customers look beyond the rhetoric and more to value.
'Therefore, the attributes inherent in any import product are more important than the origin of that product.'
Fred Sattler agrees. Sattler, a managing partner in TBWA Chiat/Day's San Francisco office, worked on the Nissan and Infiniti accounts for almost 10 years, and was instrumental in the original Altima launch campaign.
'The marketplace has matured,' he says. 'And for the majority of consumers, the focus is truly on product over origin.'
IMAGE IS THE THING
Improving their American identities also meant being good corporate citizens.
That was not just because of the continuous threat of retaliatory trade legislation. It also made good business sense, won consumer favor and reflected the attitudes of their new U.S. employees.
Both Toyota and Honda have run corporate 'good citizen' ad campaigns.
Most of the transplant automakers also routinely lobby Washing-ton on the positive impact of their localized production, U.S. parts content and other economic benefits.
Toyota has run full-page ads pointing out the U.S. origins of its Camry parts.
'From a media standpoint,' Sattler says, 'the Japanese auto advertisers have embraced a lot of things that are at the core of American life, like soccer moms and baseball sponsorships.'
The marketing companies are broadening their efforts to go after all U.S. consumers, Sattler notes.
That represents something of a strategic shift.
Because of their historically strong penetration of young buyers, he says, 'it wasn't too long ago that the Japanese carmakers would be reluctant to target anyone over the age of 50.'
Adds Sattler,'Now it's open season on all demographics and also, a whole trend toward the Japanese unapologetically producing larger vehicles.'
The importers' push to Ameri-canize with factories, content and intellectual resources also was a competitive nudge to the domestic automakers.
It helped the Big 3 rise out of their doldrums of the 1980s and early 1990s, says Chance Parker, director of product research at J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif.
'In the past five years, the U.S. has become an economical place to build and export cars from - because of the exchange rate, the more aggressive labor unions in Europe and tariff issues, especially on light trucks,' Parker says.
'The bottom line is, the Japanese would have moved to more U.S. content anyway.'