It goes without saying that many things have changed in the auto business since Allyson Witherspoon joined the industry more than 20 years ago.
“It’s such an exciting time for the industry,” says Witherspoon, who this month was appointed to head Nissan Motor Co.’s global marketing as corporate VP, global marketing, brand and merchandising. She points, of course, to the industry’s shift to electrified and connected vehicles, and the fact that one upside of the pandemic was that it found many drivers “falling in love with cars again,” she says. As a marketer, too, she appreciates today’s expanded digital communications landscape, with “so many more channels where your brands can engage with consumers and have two-way dialogs — and a constant feedback loop.”
But one of the other changes she’s noticed is the growing presence of women in industry management. “When I first started in the industry, there were hardly any women at manager and above — and only a few at C-level positions like mine,” she says. “People don’t aspire to be something they don’t see. So, when you see women in leading positions, that’s important for the future. It’s changed and grown a lot.” She says a “strong female executive team here at Nissan” includes her colleagues and fellow corporate executives Judy Wheeler and Chandra Vasser.
Witherspoon began her auto industry career as a consultant for Mercedes-Benz and then an ad agency executive working on several leading brands. She moved to the brand side when she became director of marketing communications for Infiniti in 2013, and then relocated to Nissan’s Japan headquarters in 2017. She returned to the U.S. as chief marketing officer in 2019.
She says she’s really proud of the brand’s Nissan Next work, including the impactful “Thrill Driver” commercial that premiered during the 2022 Super Bowl. And although she says she’s worked on hundreds of product introductions, a favorite career moment was her role in the introduction of the Ariya all-electric crossover. She was part of the brand’s Japan-based project team from the early stages. “Sometimes in marketing you come in later in the process. But this time I actually got to contribute from the beginning — including the brand name,” she says. “When we were riffing on ideas, I brought up the name Ariya; that’s how my niece spells her name, a name that means lioness. It went on the list of names, and ultimately went to the CEO. It was so exciting to tell my niece that her name was on a car!”
As a woman in the industry, Witherspoon says mentors have been critical to her success. “I am lucky to have had people through the course of my career who were champions for me, who saw something in me,” she says. Today, she’s part of mentoring circles at Nissan, focused on providing that support for women early in their careers. Says Witherspoon, “Part of that is having candid and transparent and humble conversation about what it’s like to be an executive, and a woman executive. I think it’s important to share what I’ve learned. It’s my responsibility to pay it forward.”
She says, “The point is to make it easier for the people coming up behind you. I had people who made things less difficult because of the guidance they gave me. I want to do the same thing, especially for younger women, to give them that perspective, and make their journey slightly easier.”
She says the onset of pandemic was an “inflection point” in terms of how people work, with particular implications for working women. “Now there is much more empathy toward being a more balanced person,” she says. “I was a workaholic to the danger point early in my career. I know that burnout is real; you have to take care of yourself, have to manage it for yourself. You have to watch for those signs and know what your game plan is.”
She adds, “Now at Nissan we have leadership that wants you to have that more balanced life, with time for your outside interests, and to take care of yourself and to take time off. The world is not going to stop if you’re not in the office. That goes for everyone, but is really important for women, since we tend to take on more of the responsibility in the home. This has allowed us to look at our lives differently. I think we have a lot more flexibility now.”