NEW YORK -- Nissan's new marketing boss, Jon Brancheau, has only been in his job for three months, but he has been a car marketer for a lifetime. He grew up around the business, his father having worked at General Motors in a Cadillac assembly plant during the 1950s and 1960s.
Brancheau followed in his father's footsteps for a time, leading marketing for Saab and later running GM's international media operations, before jumping over to Nissan Motor America in 2008 to oversee global marketing for Nissan's Infiniti division.
Two years later -- after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Joel Ewanick -- he was made vice president of marketing for Nissan.
During last year's recession, the automaker slashed its domestic ad budget 42 percent to $690 million, down from $1.19 billion in 2008, according to Advertising Age, an affiliate of Automotive News.
But buoyed by solid sales results -- last month marked Nissan's 10th consecutive month with a year-over-year sales increase -- and a mission to overtake rivals Toyota and Honda to become the No. 1 Japanese car maker, it has quickly ramped spending back up.
Last month Nissan decided to add $100 million to its national marketing budget, Automotive News reported.
The moves come as Nissan, along with its lead creative agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day, has for the better part of a year been prepping the launch of a new corporate push dubbed "Innovation for All."
The idea is to transition from a price-driven, model-specific strategy to a broader idea that Nissan cars come equipped with a range of innovative offerings, from keyless entry to air purifiers and smartphone apps, at an affordable price.
It will start rolling out the message this weekend with a slew of 60-second TV spots voiced by actor Robert Downey Jr. (who, incidentally, was chosen over another celeb, John Cusack) that feature Nissan's 370Z sports car, the Maxima sports sedan, the Altima, the Titan full-size pickup truck and the much talked about, all-electric Nissan Leaf.
For the Leaf, Nissan and TWBA are aiming for a viral hit with a spot that highlights the impact of climate change. That commercial breaks Sept. 9 and stars what TBWA claims is the world's only trained polar bear, which wanders off her home on an iceberg in the Arctic to travel through cities and over bridges into suburban neighborhoods, ultimately to give a hug to an eco-conscious Leaf owner.
Nissan was the first auto advertiser to strike a deal with Apple to unveil an iAd, and it's also in the process of developing advertising for the iPad too.
"We are finding that the level of engagement is much deeper than other digital plays," Brancheau said. In all, Nissan and TBWA are shooting for an ambitious total of 200 million media impressions by year-end for the "Innovation for All" campaign.
On Tuesday, Brancheau spoke with Advertising Age about the state of the economy, boosting marketing spend and the controversy that has begun swirling around Leaf spokesman Lance Armstrong, who, Brancheau confirmed, will get the very first Leaf to roll off the assembly line.
As we enter the fourth quarter there's increasing talk of a double-dip recession. Based on what you're saying in terms of Nissan's sales, are you predicting that won't happen?
Brancheau: Obviously there is wild volatility in the economic environment, and anybody who thinks they've figured it out is proven wrong the following week. In terms of our overall presence in the marketplace, this is an important point in time regardless of the economic outlook. We have nine new products that we'll launch over the course of roughly the next two years and "Innovation for All" is the message we'll sustain through all that launch activity.
We have 85 percent of our sales volume that will be represented by new products through the end of 2012, and that starts with the Juke in a couple months. So even though there continues to be uncertainty, we expect to sustain and continue to grow our presence in terms of our [advertising] investment to get the word out for Nissan. From our perspective, there's no turning back.
You've increased your marketing spend dramatically this year. Tell us about why you've doubled down and whether your media mix has changed?
Brancheau: Most of the industry cut back on resources in the midst of the crisis. Coming out of the crisis, there still continues to be plenty of uncertainty, but we have increased, to a great extent, our advertising investment. Again this is a very important time for Nissan, given the cadence of product launches that we have. So we will continue to look for ways to maximize our presence in the marketplace and our share of voice. We need to drive home this new messaging, engage with consumers and improve their consideration for the brand. So we plan to continue to invest.
If you look back over the course of the last 18 months at our creative, a lot of it has been focused on individual models and there hasn't been an overarching idea that held everything together, laddering to Nissan. That's what's different about this work. It's focused on the vehicle lines supporting the Nissan brand rather than just focusing on individual launch activity. The Leaf is the most recent example to believe that Nissan is an innovative company and that's how we want to transmit our message to consumers, we want to turn it around a little bit -- Nissan is the brand, and here's the reason you should believe in it.
We haven't deviated wildly... we picked up an NFL package where we have quarter exclusivity in Sunday Night [football on] NBC, which is the most broadly watched NFL property of the weekend.
If you look at the mix in aggregate, because of some of our sports investments, we have ticked up a little bit in terms of TV. We continue to have a very strong presence in digital, we've bumped up a small percentage there, and I'd say we have modest print activity. We'll also be in the World Series, the timing of which is nice for Juke, so you'll see a new spot for that air in the mid-October time frame. So, slight uptick in TV, slight uptick in digital, and down slightly in print.
Nissan had a successful integration strategy with NBC's "Heroes," getting in on that show early and riding through as it gained popularity. Now that it's off the air, are there any new shows that Nissan has identified with which it would like to pursue a similar branded deal?
Brancheau: That was a great program and we are looking into other innovative programming to integrate with.
How involved has Nissan Motor's CEO, Carlos Ghosn, been in the advertising initiatives and did he take part in this upcoming campaign launch?
Branchaeu: He has been engaged. In fact, the polar bear spot was one where we shared rough cuts with him roughly a month ago. So we have gone all the way to the top of the company. It's important to note that the overall strategy regarding "Innovation for All" is being adopted on a global basis, but the way it's expressed may subtly change from one market to the other to ensure relevance.
Nissan has made a pretty big bet on Lance Armstrong -- he was featured in the first Leaf commercial, is displayed prominently on your Web site and you even sponsor one of his cycling teams. Now, there's a ton of scrutiny around him with regards to doping claims. Does that worry you?
Brancheau: This is something we'll continue to monitor, but the claims are all unsubstantiated up to this point. He's iconic, and he's almost the epitome of innovation when you think about athleticism. We're well connected with [Lance] and we continue to support him and the team.
He's backing down to some degree from cycling in future years but we expect him to be actively engaged in a lot of different athletic events, especially marathons and things of that nature. So we're staying the course and continue to support him.