TOKYO - Tracey Matlock's job is to figure out who the customers will be for the 2010 Nissan Quest - and what they'll want in their minivans. It's an important job, too, because the last time Nissan got it wrong on the Quest.
The Tokyo-based executive has been taking product planners and designers on field trips in the United States.
Matlock rousts her team at 6 a.m. and sends them off to school. Acting like car-poolers, they cruise through school parking lots observing moms dropping off kids. Then the Nissan note-takers follow the minivan moms as they run errands.
The 44-year-old American is the Quest's chief product specialist, responsible for the vehicle's overall competitiveness. Her assignment is to get the concept right for the 2010 Quest.
At the moment, Matlock is trying to distill information about the target customers and their needs into key descriptive words. The goal is to help engineers and stylists know what it is they have to create.
Trouble in 2004
The project has special significance because the radically shaped 2004 Quest stumbled badly. It hasn't sold anything close to its target, and Nissan had to extensively redesign the interior of the 2007 version at considerable expense.
Matlock says the 2004 Quest's biggest problem was quality, not styling. But she adds that the styling was aimed at a customer profile that was too narrow.
Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn laid down the law for the next full re-do. He doesn't want product planners "trying to be overly creative" or aiming at too narrow a target market, Matlock says. "We're supposed to take risks, but they should be calculated."
The Quest's minimalist, monochromatic interior was "a little too new for some people," she says. When shoppers looked inside, they found what she calls a "Halston penthouse" look designed for "modern urban dwellers."
"That's not your soccer mom," she says.
So for the 2010 redesign Matlock aims to "go more mainstream, to look at women in general."
Nissan has almost doubled the number of focus groups for the next Quest compared with the number used for the 2004 edition, she estimates.
As she led product planners and designers on their U.S. field trips, Matlock wanted to know how the customers live. "Then you try to figure out what they would want to change," she says, "because that's where you find out what is needed in their lives."
While it is important to see Americans' lifestyles, "it's best for me to be (based) here" in Japan, the Detroit native says.
More minivans in Japan
That's partly because minivans make up a larger share of the market in Japan than in the United States. Toyota Motor Corp. offers seven minivan nameplates in Japan, compared with one in the United States. All those models on the road offer a peek at competitors' possible plans.
"You see the potential for technology to be carried over" to the U.S. market, she says.
Matlock arrived in Japan in January 2005. She's a mechanical engineer whose previous assignment was at Nissan Technical Center North America in Farmington Hills, Mich., where she studied customer requirements and helped turn them into engineering specs.
The current Quest had a number of problems after its launch. The production mix didn't match initial strong demand for the top-end version. The options mix was off. Pricing later had to be adjusted with the addition of a lower-end version. The interior alienated customers. A recall and other quality woes dented the vehicle's image. The marketing failed to connect with shoppers because of ads that showed women using the Quest - but with no families around.
Nissan sold 40,357 Quests in 2005 in the United States, down 13.1 percent from 2004, and well short of its 80,000 annual target.
The recent addition of the lower-priced version of the Quest, aimed at boosting volume, has complicated Matlock's task. Customers will be drawn to that $24,755 model, she says. "I have to get the premium image back."
That will require having a unique minivan, but being different sets up its own challenges.
"If you're going to do unique," she says," it has to have very, very high quality."
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]