Nissan’s global CMO: Agencies need to change

This is ThinkTank, a new series from Digiday where we quiz CMOs and brand chiefs on where their industry is heading.

The Nissan of today is a far cry of the Nissan of 1999 — a dark time when the Japanese automaker had to be financially rescued by French rival Renault.

Today, Nissan has a market cap of $46 billion, far bigger than Renault’s $27 billion. Its brand value, according to Interbrand, rose 23 percent this year and doubled since it first appeared on that consultancy’s list in 2011.

A big focus on marketing has played a role in its revival. This year, Nissan came back to the Super Bowl after a hiatus of nearly two decades. It’s also unafraid to try new technology — just last week, it chose to reveal its latest model via live-streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat at the New York International Auto Show.

But it is nowhere close to being done, with an aim to boost its market share in the U.S. from 8 percent to 10 percent by 2017. Competitors Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW have all expanded their North American production in recent years, as have Hyundai and Volvo.

Digiday spoke with Roel De Vries, Nissan’s global CMO, to find out how he plans to keep Nissan ahead in the race.

Excerpts:

The markets you oversee are very different. How can you remain consistent in a global role across such diverse markets?
On the foundational level, it’s all very simple. One thing they teach you in school about marketing is differentiation, but I think that’s dangerous. At its core, there’s a lot more in common between people than there is different, and it’s much more powerful to find out what’s common than to find out what’s different. And I believe that in a global marketing job, my job is to figure out what’s common.

What about the execution?
The implementation is different for every region, because the media choices are different and the consumers are different. But in terms of the messaging and the overall marketing strategy, you cannot be one thing in one place and something else in another place. I’m a Dutchman in America today, and in China tomorrow. But I’m the same person. I may speak a different language and adapt to the culture of where I am, but I can’t become a different person. The same applies to brands.

So in China, we definitely have a very different media strategy than we have in the United States. There is a need for targeted marketing, but it’s not that easy to do. In the U.S., it is far more mature in terms of the amount of options you have and the amount of data that is available to do targeted marketing.

Your CEO announced recently a laser-sharp focus on the U.S. Why? 
The U.S. has always been — for all the car manufacturers — one of the key markets in the world. A focus on the U.S. is critical, you need to be strong in the U.S. if you want to be a global player. But that doesn’t discount all the other places. We’re as big in China as we are in North America. China in 10 years has become as important to us as North America, when earlier it was nothing. We as a company are quite balanced in most parts of the world. I think in places like Brazil and India, we need to fight to get our share.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
From a marketing point of view, it’s hard to coordinate all that activity and get across a singular message to the consumer. If the dealer is communicating one thing, and if we, when we in our campaigns, communicate another thing, eventually the customer gets confused and just disengages.

The integration question over the last 10 years has become the problem of the client, it’s crazy. We have what we call the “Nissan United” wherein we force our agencies to be much more integrated. We are trying to correct what I think was an unhealthy development in the agency world over the last 10 years, in which everything became too specialized. I don’t think our solution today is the final one or the end one, but it’s a model forcing something that I think will be quite a fundamental job.

So you’re trying to correct a broader systemic problem?
Agencies need to change; it’s about how to engage with people. The sooner we get out of that compartmentalized thinking and get back to integration, the better. At least for our brand, I’m forcing it every single day. But it’s not easy, because we’ve programmed ourselves over the last 10-15 years in terms of specialization. The problem is all over the world, but in the U.S. it’s more profound. You definitely need expertise, the knowledge set needs to be specialized. But, they can’t be isolated because what has not changed so much actually, is the type of messages that work well to build a brand. Customers still respond to similar stuff, whether funny or emotive. We humans haven’t changed.

Are you an early adopter of new tech?
I definitely don’t believe in waiting and watching and I also don’t believe in jumping on top of everything. For me, the biggest risk of all these new possibilities is that you end up doing a lot of hobbyism. And a for a company like us, it can get really expensive. We need to know what’s going on, but when we see something that we really believe in, we should definitely go after it. But that’s not to say that we should try out every act or gimmick or activity that comes out because most of them have a very low ROI.

What’s the biggest culture shock about being Dutch and working for a Japanese company?
If you want to be good at a global job in a foreign company, outside of your own culture, you need to have a passion for people and genuine interest in what drives people. If you don’t have a real interest in culture and don’t try to understand where people come from and why they think or behave in certain ways, then you can never be good at your job. So it’s a personality thing. Being Dutch helps because we’re such a small country, so we’ve always been dependent on dealing with other countries and other nations because we’re very dependent on our export and import.

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