Indeed, despite its successes in sales, increased dealer profits, declining incentives and corporate profits, Nissan long has been perceived as a kind of flashy Japanese commodity brand.
Despite a flair for gutsy design and horsepower macho -- think of the edgy Cube and the racy GT-R -- Nissan is more commonly associated with its basic pickups and price-competitive Versas and Altimas.
Nissan's reputation, Tavares says, is simply too diffuse.
“That's exactly it. That's the core. Brian has been working on that for six months to a year,” he says.
Carolin's solution is to use the Leaf to emblazon the brand's marketing message.
“Potentially, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says of the chance to rebrand.
A national ad campaign that began last month is trumpeting product innovation as Nissan's identity. It reminds consumers -- even those who aren't planning to shop at a Nissan dealership -- that the brand is all about innovation.
“I'm not advertising the Leaf to sell Leafs,” Carolin says of the new electric sedan. “We're sold out. I'm doing it to build the brand.”
The Leaf will go on sale in December, but initial inventories are modest. Nissan has been taking $99 sales reservations from interested buyers on the Internet since April, hoping to reach 20,000 reservations in time for the start of sales. The company hit that number last month and immediately stopped taking reservations.
While all those reservations will not necessarily translate into vehicle deliveries, 20,000 represents the entire allocation available to U.S. dealers for the next year.
Such a meager volume hardly seems like a big enough tool to build a brand, as Carolin says. But it might not strike the casual observer that Nissan is even in need of “building.”
Nissan currently is the No. 5 brand in the United States, up from No. 6 a decade ago. Its Japanese parent company has been one of the industry's most profitable automakers for the past decade, after nearly going bankrupt in 1999.
Nissan's U.S. sales are having a party -- up 15 percent in the first nine months of this year. Its cars -- for example, the 370Z Roadster and the new small Juke crossover -- routinely turn the heads of enthusiasts.
The brand has been picking up about a half-point of U.S. market share each year for the past few years.
And 85 percent of Nissan's retailers are profitable -- up from 75 percent last year, after the worst auto slump in more than 30 years.
And the Leaf's influence will be large.