Nissan marketing boss: Branding needs to be couched in business language

How Nissan's efforts to become more unified as a brand hold valuable lessons for marketers (and "creative hipsters") across all industries

TOKYO — In many ways one of Japan’s most progressive companies when it comes to marketing, Nissan nonetheless faces challenges as it looks to position itself as a more exciting brand.

The company is still working to strengthen its image as one that offers "Innovation and excitement for everyone," a mantra that it unveiled several years ago. Roel de Vries, Nissan global head of marketing and brand strategy, said at the center of this is an effort to strike a balance between being global and local.

De Vries said the brand aims to have more central control while retaining its strength as a multinational company — that is, with a good degree of autonomy in local markets. Giving local leadership authority has helped the company bounce back from events like the 2009 global financial crisis and the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, he said. At the same time, that level of autonomy has made it difficult to maintain consistency as a brand.

"We definitely have to do a lot of rebalancing and we’re going through that process now," de Vries told Campaign Japan. "The reason it’s so important is that you can’t have a centralized development of your product with a decentralized interpretation of that product. We make decisions on our products five years out. If we allow regions to go in their own direction in the short term, the chances that that will match in the long term are very small."

No marketer is an island
De Vries said the process began by looking at the aspects of the brand that are most visible to the consumer, while taking into account the products and technologies the company is investing that will hit the market five to seven years from now, and making sure the two align.

Brand expression varied considerably by market, he said. Besides inconsistent logo sizing, placement and use of color, the messaging alternated between "funny" and "serious." "Nobody in his right mind would argue that that’s the right thing to do," he said.

Identifying problems was the easy part. But much harder has been ensuring communications match with product and design, deciding what messaging an individual market is allowed to use when it launches a product, and what sponsorship activities can be decided locally and which should be decided centrally. It has involved ensuring the marketing department communicates effectively with a range of other departments.

"What was very important was to develop a delegation of authority," de Vries said. "We were very specific in saying, these areas we get involved in, and these areas we don’t get involved in. It’s change-management—a long process of continuous discussions, which is in my view very much the future of marketing. You cannot live in isolation of the rest of the organisation."

De Vries is adamant that a brand should fundamentally operate the same way in all markets, but that the interpretations of that central direction can vary to some degree. Advertising in the US should never be the same as advertising in Japan, for instance—but it has to be obvious it’s coming from the same brand.

"So you need to do a lot of work with local advertising agencies but make sure they get briefed from the center," he said. "We’re getting pretty close now where we have a very clear central brand and then many local interpretations that need to be consistent over time. In the first two or three seconds of an ad, you should already get that it’s Nissan. If you don’t achieve that, the rest is irrelevant."

Don’t leapfrog

He also sees value in putting more emphasis on the fact that Nissan is Japanese. That doesn’t refer just to communications, but also to product design. "When it comes to design, you have two sides [in Japan]—one that is relatively conservative, and one that is very avant-garde, very modern. We need to tap into that one."

Combining it with international influences can lead to something unique, like the GTR, he said. One purpose of brand management and marketing is to identify these possibilities and amplify them, he said.

The biggest mistake a company can make in evolving its brand, he said, is to move too quickly and try to "leapfrog" the consumer. "It’s the worst kind of marketing, and we went through this phase," he said. "If you say, ‘we don’t want to be this, we want to be that’, you will fail because it’s not genuine. People see right through it."

Positioning Infiniti as a Japanese luxury brand — still something of a rarity — makes far more sense than to try to emulate German brands, he noted. In other words, a brand should find its point of difference and stick with it. "That’s when a company finds its groove; that’s when you start building brands."

In the same way, Nissan could never be like Tesla, he said, nor should it try to be. But the company can aim to talk about products like the Leaf in a more exciting way than simply as an environmentally friendly vehicle — a message that only resonates with a limited number of people. "If we start doing that, we’ll probably be accepted because the car comes from the same people who make the GTR."

Speak the right language
For all this to be possible, "you need a lot of support from the top, and there needs to be a genuine desire to focus on branding," de Vries said. But how to obtain that support is a question many still struggle with.

"It’s important to make branding part of business language," de Vries said. "You need to find the language of your company. Then you need to put marketing and branding on the agenda using that language. I know in this company, any presentation that uses words like ‘positioning’ — marketing jargon — is seen as soft. But if I talk about things like pricing power, purchase funnel, profit opportunity if we fix the brand, there’s full support for marketing and branding.

"Don't send a hipster creative into our executive committee—he’ll get killed. Have him work with you and translate that into the language of the company. That’s the job of someone in my position."

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