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Fri 15 January 2016

Event Report: NCCJ Luncheon Meeting 8 December 2015

Before 2011, Nissan’s global organisation was decentralised and building a stronger brand image was not a high priority for the company, recalls Roel de Vries, the global head of marketing and brand strategy at Nissan Motor Company.

His talk on building brand value at the NCCJ Luncheon gave “a look inside the kitchen” regarding some of the lessons Nissan has learned about the importance of developing a strong brand.

“We had developed into an organisation where the US was more powerful than Japan, and Europe was very powerful in itself,” de Vries observed about that time. “There was no centre of excellence anywhere in the world … and no one was listening to head office.”

Nissan’s foundation is in engineering and manufacturing, and the thinking had been that if they kept doing that well, it should be enough to secure the company’s future. However, when analysing the aftermath of the Lehman Shock, de Vries realised how critical a strong brand was to a company’s financial security.

“If you take the Lehman Shock, we saw that the companies that recovered first were the branded companies,” he noted.

De Vries and his team looked at other strong brands and found that focusing more on brand value allowed those companies to drive demand, increase prices, and build customer loyalty. “The next step for Nissan is not going to be more cars or more markets. The next step has to be growing our share in markets where we have always been.”

The key to convincing the company to invest more in strengthening its brand image was helping them see that brand value had a significant impact on the bottom line.

“At our company, as it is at every company, it’s all about returns,” de Vries said. “Marketing and brands are not about beautiful TV commercials, they’re tools. It’s not about events, not about whatever it is, they’re all tools. If you can get the company to realise that it’s about money, then they wake up.”

The next step for de Vries was identifying the three key areas where the company needed to focus its energy: producing high-quality products, creating good experiences for customers, and concentrating on visibility. They first had to focus on doing these basics well — and only then would they be able to start thinking about differentiating themselves from their competitors.

One crucial ingredient of a good customer experience was creating a consistent global image. “How do you make sure there’s consistency in a hundred and something countries with a few thousand pieces of content generated all the time — that the message is consistent, that the look and feel are consistent, the tone and manner are consistent?” asked de Vries. “You need a process.”

De Vries has a policy of approving every TV commercial in the world that Nissan runs. He believes it is essential for head office to play a strong role in building the company’s brand, and this is one way they help shape brand consistency across all markets.

Throughout his talk, de Vries repeatedly stressed that this was a journey and not something that happens overnight. Today, Nissan is right at the start, only now able to move into the differentiation stage. “If you ask the customers out there, is Nissan truly differentiated from other brands you will not get a positive result … because it takes time, it takes a long time.”

With regard to visibility, de Vries referred to the importance of sponsorships and advertising at live events. So they use 5 to 10% of their entire marketing budget on high-profile sponsorships, such as for basketball, cricket, and NCAA college football.

De Vries concluded by looking at the automotive industry’s future.

“The biggest challenge in our industry is providing an integrated customer journey,” he stated, stressing the need to get up to date with how they deal with customers by becoming better connected digitally, like in the travel and banking industries. Right now, “nothing talks to each other.”

He remains optimistic, but realistic: “I think it’s exciting. Cars are becoming interesting again. But it’s going to be quite a race.”

To end his presentation, de Vries offered up some advice on branding: “Focus on what’s common, not what’s different.” He has learned that there is a lot of wasted energy trying to find out what is different, but insists that you can’t make lots of cars for different markets, or have lots of different strategies for different parts of the world.

“You cannot differentiate all the time. It’s impossible,” he said. “The power sits in what’s common, in my view.”

Text  Andrew Howitt, EURObiZ Japan

Event Photos