How Nissan revs up its content-creation engine

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Nissan's Yuki Morimoto.
Nissan's Yuki Morimoto.

Passing the "so what?" test: Lessons from the Japan-based auto maker's big-budget, in-house content-creation center.

When Nissan became one of the first global brands to make a significant investment in an in-house content creation facility back in 2011, there were doubts — in the wake of Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami that year — as to whether the initiative was justified or would even last.

Four years on, the global media center is still very much a part of the company’s communications strategy. At Nissan’s Yokohama headquarters last week, Dan Sloan, the unit’s general manager and editor-in-chief, spoke about its progress and how it has changed shape as a result of the experience.

Today, the media center comprises filming capabilities in Nashville, Tenn., as well as Yokohama, with plans to share a facility in Paris, although a planned facility in Hong Kong was ultimately abandoned. The unit has nine staff globally and more than 10 contractors in Japan and the US, supporting the Nissan, Datsun and Infiniti brands; the Renault-Nissan alliance; internal and external communications; and product, motorsports and events teams. 

Introducing the media center’s TV studio, which is modeled on something one might find at Bloomberg (somewhat ironically, considering Sloan joined Nissan after 17 years at Thomson Reuters), Sloan was quick to note its prominent physical position on the floor of the communications department. Nissan’s management "really does see it as a priority," he said. "It feeds into the floor as a centerpiece for both communications and marketing."

The media center at Nissan's Yokohama headquarters.

Evolution: R&D and the "liberty to fail"
The founding premise was that churning out press releases, talking with the media on the phone or releasing ads was no longer enough to generate any sort of worthwhile engagement with target audiences, Sloan said. Instead, the media center set out to use a team, primarily from journalism, with "a higher ‘so-what?’ bar mentality" that would find story material and distil it into interesting storytelling that social media would potentially embrace.

As any journalist or content producer knows, that is no easy task, and in launching the center, Nissan achieved distinction as a company with a progressive approach to communications. But perhaps bolder still was the company’s acceptance that the media centre’s activities would not always work.

"What we’ve had is the liberty to fail, which is not a common phenomenon in corporates, and Japanese corporates in particular," Sloan said. "The mentality we came in with was kind of like a startup mentality. We needed success, but there was no template on how to get there. Thus it’s a bit of trial and error and you learn from when something doesn’t have an audience that you thought it would."

Sloan said he initially envisaged the production of much more written content, but the focus soon shifted to video when it became clear not enough people were engaging with Nissan-produced articles. Since then, the approach has been similar to that of R&D in a factory. The early days were about "content creation on a volume basis to show we could make it and do these things," Sloan said. That was followed by a concerted effort to learn the art of distribution, particularly on social channels — something that is still a work in progress. But the biggest shift has been from developing English-centric programming to content in a multitude of languages, including two dedicated channels in Japanese and Mandarin aimed at very specific audiences, such as dealerships.

Successful content cannot be predicted
The media center’s physical positioning at Nissan HQ is not just symbolic. On a day-to-day basis, Sloan said, the unit is engaged in the support of cross-functional teams. At any given time, the team might be covering an event, a new product launch, an auto show, a race or a visit from an ambassador such as Usain Bolt.

"All of those things are eminently packageable into content and can be livestreamed," he noted. "You can do it on a small scale, and because they’re social media-friendly, your audience, followers and fans will share and amplify, so we started doing things that were deeper stories abut what Nissan, Infiniti, and later Datsun [the team’s current focus] were all doing."

It’s hard to determine what will fly, though, and there have been surprises and disappointments. The first time Sloan said the team realized the potential to reach people on a truly large scale was when "Top Gear" picked up a short documentary on EV racing.

Sloan was only mildly interested when two of his staff pitched the idea to film developers at Nissan’s track in Chiba, just outside Tokyo. "They came back with a seven-minute piece, all in Japanese with subtitles — usually the kiss of death for an audience — but at the same time, EV racing was becoming a talking point," he recalled. "So completely without our enhancing or introducing, 'Top Gear' found this video and embedded it, taking it from a four-digit audience to something that hit close to six digits."

Since then, a piece of footage detailing a GTR breaking the speed record at the Nürburgring clocked up millions of views and stands out as one of the most successful to date. While that might have been a more sure-fire win, Sloan said in conclusion: "We’ve been at motorsports and seen a lot of different things take off, and sometimes it’s been a complete surprise to us. There’s certainly intelligence about best practice, which we listen to, but sometimes you’ve just got to take a chance, and the weird stuff works."

How to measure a media center
While the unit has a good degree of autonomy within Nissan, Sloan said it is nonetheless tied into the overall marketing and communications KPIs (an acronym he admitted he did not know when he joined from Reuters). As within the PR industry, the measures are sometimes hard to grasp: improvements in share of voice, or in perception. But he stressed that the important thing when it comes to video content is not to focus on the number of views, but on the time spent watching.

"It’s [a question of] utility to purpose as well as its audience and how well it’s impacting engagement," Sloan said. "Coming from a very analog world where it’s a case of what paper’s picked up your story, or what broadcasters took your video, it’s much more now who’s watching and for how long. …

"Bosses don’t say, ‘I want x-thousand views.’ Often it’s very strategic: ‘I need you to create something to support this event, project, executive visit' — many different things.

"If you made a five-minute video and the average viewing time was 22 seconds, it probably wasn’t that great," he said matter-of-factly. "But if it’s a longer piece of content and you're maintaining an audience, then you’re hitting the mark.

Partnerships on the rise
There should be no doubt that the media center is a vehicle to promote the Nissan brand. But that doesn’t mean hard-selling, nor does it mean talking about Nissan 24/7. Sloan said a very important area has proved to be partnerships with related companies in other industries. Recent content initiatives involved work with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC); Topi, a company that makes underwater robots; and Hitachi Construction as part of a licensing agreement.

"It’s taking Nissan technology, or licensing Nissan technology, and taking it to the deepest places on earth but getting a story that involves all [stakeholders] in an environment that isn’t a road," Sloan said. "Similar relationships will be coming that again highlight what’s possible."

Which is not to say the team is not making cool car videos. "At every tier-one auto show you’re going to see a concept car behind-the-scenes video that we made," Sloan said. "But I think what works, or will be more prevalent, is a lot of partnerships and when it’s needed, consultation with agencies, which we have in Nissan United [a dedicated unit within Omnicom Group to service the brand], as well as with somebody who can get an even larger audience than you can organically."

Living, learning and localizing
Sloan said his biggest lesson has been the importance of localization over globalization, or at least over a globalized way of thinking. Referring back to the move away from English language-centric content, he said that approach was restrictive in not giving access to enough of the automotive and transport sector as a whole. "It was too much about us and not enough about the industry to engender larger interest. We’ve recognised that and rejigged the format."

To date, Sloan said Nissan has produced dedicated content in "more languages than I can count." These include Bahasa, Hindi, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, French and Spanish as well as English, Japanese and Mandarin.

"Anywhere that Nissan, its partners or the alliance are doing business, that’s potentially a story. Thus we need local partners to assist, but we’re not looking at one single tote board. It’s a lot of different places and a lot of different ways to measure how useful the content is."

Content’s future and reaching the bar
Sloan has observed increased experimentation with content among brands. While the number of those with in-house facilities has grown, some prefer to maintain the "client-content creator relationship" with agencies or other external providers. Others still "have versions of this that are completely agnostic to themselves," he said.

"I think the success of brands’ recognition of [content] as a communications channel is now reflected in how businesses are changing. Traditional media have brand businesses and are looking for corporate clients, and that’s going to increase."

One thing Sloan admitted is that he believes a marketing element — the know-how to promote and distribute — will be essential to the future of content and the communications industry as a whole. "But what comes over from traditional communications is the importance of resonating with an audience. It’s got to be newsworthy; it’s got to pass the ‘so what?’ bar."

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn with interpreter Yuki Morimoto, who became the subject of a piece of branded content.

So is Sloan taken in by other brands’ content as a consumer? "Sure," he said — but he remains highly critical. "I think it’s a fine line as to whether you feel it’s a commercial or a story. The guys who make commercials consider [what they do] storytelling, but often it’s preposterous; it’s not real."

At Nissan, he tries to maintain that level of reality by spending a lot of time talking to everyday people in the company, who do have genuine stories to tell. He uses this as a barometer of sorts to measure what he sees elsewhere. "When I see a story like that, that hits a bunch of different buttons and passes the ‘so-what?’ test, then bravo."

An example of storytelling from Nissan that stands out for him is a look at the work of Yuki Morimoto (below), who works as an interpreter to the company’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn. Sloan described her as "incredibly energetic" when interpreting and able to anticipate and enact Ghosn’s hand gestures and mannerisms.

However, when the idea was first proposed, there was consternation. "There was this moment where people were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s not going to be a tell-all or something?’ " he recalled. "No. It’s really about an individual story that is neat within our own house, that only we could get out. And we were lucky in that she was perfect and the producers behind it did a great job in getting the best story they could."

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