Nissan Takes Note With A Versa-tile Marketing Strategy


The millennials aren’t coming into the market. They’re already here. And yet the opportunity they represent is still in its infancy. After all, it isn’t until 2020 when millennials—individuals born roughly after 1980 and who reached adulthood in the early 2000s—will reach their full spending power, according to Unity Marketing.   

While automakers are aware of this opportunity— predicted that by 2020 millennials will constitute half of all automobile sales—there are new marketing challenges around attracting what promises to be a highly lucrative demographic. Remember the reliable, patriotic catchphrase “Made in America?” Toss it. That same AutoTrader study found that only 38% of the 1,657 millennials it surveyed care whether a car was assembled in the United States, compared to 53% of Gen Xers and 60% of baby boomers.   

And forget about the automobile as a symbol of independence and freedom. Many of the younger millennials delay getting their driver’s license due to a combination of factors—too busy with “other things,” fear of driving, or simply being priced out of the market.   

But some automotive marketers—like those at Nissan USA—have zeroed in on the traits that make millennial car buyers unique. For example, their tendency to rely more on word of mouth to influence purchase decisions (43%) than their older Gen X siblings (28%) or baby boomer parents (32%). Or the fact that millennials are more likely to be introduced to the car they ultimately buy through a family member or friend, instead of through a salesperson on a car lot. And while millennials might want a cheap price, they certainly don’t want that to translate to features; for instance, infotainment systems, which used to be a luxury value-add, are now a must-have for 70% of younger millennials. And for nearly half of the millennials AutoTrader surveyed, a car is very much a reflection of personality and individual accomplishments.   But while young adults are the fastest-growing demographic for automakers, customers as a whole have changed significantly. And these changes heavily influence Nissan’s marketing—from a massive CRM initiative that began two and a half years ago to a cutting-edge digital campaign for Nissan’s newest millennial-focused automobile.  

Scrollin’ and rollin’

The 2014 Nissan Versa Note, which the Japanese automaker introduced at the Detroit auto show in January in anticipation of a June release, is part of Nissan’s Versa line of subcompact cars that also includes the Sedan. While both models are priced around $15,000, depending on the options selected, the Note in particular seems designed specifically for millennials. It has an infotainment system, a rear camera to quell anxieties associated with parking, and a roomy hatchback meant to carry various lifestyle accumulations. The marketing narrative focuses extensively on this hatchback. The fall campaign— designed by Nissan’s digital agency of record Critical Mass in partnership with Omnicom peers OMD and TBWAChiatDay—is called “Your Door to More.”   

“We were going for a younger target audience,” says Steve Savic, VP of creative at Critical Mass. “People were telling us they put things in their cars and keep them there for twelve months of the year. [The car] was an extension of their personality and we built the story of this vehicle around individual passions.”

Indeed, one of the more frequently aired commercial spots show vignettes of millennials wakeboarding, pulling instruments from the Versa Note’s hatchback, and grilling next to a cabin, after which a male announcer intones: “Completely redesigned for whatever you love to do. The all-new Nissan Versa Note: Your door to more.”

The Versa Note vehicle page is one of many on Nissan’s site that have been overhauled by Critical Mass. Some of the design decisions might seem ornamental, but they’re born from research and evolving browsing behaviors.

For instance, the Versa Note page showcases an interactive video, in which millennials skate around the car and users have the option of clicking on icons to learn more about the vehicle’s features. The video spools as browsers scroll down the page.

“A few years ago there wasn’t as much receptivity to scrolling,” says Amanda Levy, Critical Mass’s SVP and managing director, “but we’ve learned [now] people will explore.”   

Despite this pizzazz, the interface allows Nissan to present more information cleanly—information that includes, along with the Versa Note’s feature list, dealer locations and maps. “We want to use those shopping tools to remove barriers and let [prospects] get the information they need,” Levy says, “and hopefully take the next step,” which could be requesting a brochure or scheduling a test drive.   

Time on site has become an increasingly important KPI for Nissan. Visitors might not want to submit their information online, but spending, say, half an hour on the site is an indicator of interest that Nissan and Critical Mass want to better understand.   

“We’ve seen increases in [interested shoppers] so long as the content is organized in a clear way, and [we’ve seen] that additional content drives increased conversion as people spend more time on the site,” Levy says.

So far, Nissan’s marketing is paying off. The Versa Sedan and Note are doing well in the highly-competitive subcompact space. Amid competitors such as the Chevrolet Sonic, the Ford Fiesta, the Honda Fit, the Hyundai Accent, and the Toyota Yaris, the Versa series topped sales by the end of September with 92,000 units sold. According to automotive industry trade magazine WardsAuto, this represents a bounce-back from the previous year when the Versa line came in second to the Kia Soul.   

Of course, Nissan isn’t alone in its online focus. The automotive space as a whole has embraced digital with content like Pinterest pages, multimedia creative, and social campaigns. “I know that we spend, based on studies we have and benchmarks, a higher percentage of our marketing budget in digital than our competitors,” says Erich Marx, director of interactive and social media marketing at Nissan USA. “We’re not the first or only, but we go deeper as we believe digital provides an unbelievable opportunity for us to reach our target. I won’t say we’re diving in with millions of dollars on untested initiatives, but we’re investing wisely with the strategy of being first or near-first.”   

Raising hands, connecting customers   

Creative assets like the Nissan website and primetime TV commercials are meant to build awareness and drive top-of-the-funnels leads, or what Marx calls “hand-raisers”—an individual who requests additional information about a car model as it becomes available. “They don’t want to be [further] contacted,” Marx says.

Truly valuable leads, he adds, actually interact with a dealer, which is a much more solid indication of buying intent. “We try to be realistic,” Marx says. “A broad-based marketing launch of a new product [like the Versa Note] won’t drive leads—the goal is broad awareness and consideration of the vehicle, so hand-raisers are a top KPI.”

The question is: How can Nissan turn those handraisers into leads so local dealerships can turn them into buyers? One might also ask: How can Nissan keep an owner whose car is reaching end-of-life in the Nissan family? After all, as those Versa owners accumulate more wealth, get married, and have kids, it’s incumbent upon Nissan to migrate them to another car within the company’s extensive line-up.

“Brand retention is a key thing for car manufacturers,” says Ken Elias, a partner at automotive consultancy Maryann Keller & Associates. “The whole goal is getting customers for life, eventually graduating them into [Nissan’s luxury] Infiniti brand.”

Marx, however, acknowledges that this isn’t a core strategy within Nissan, where car divisions are generally separate. That being said, Nissan has become increasingly aggressive about keeping tabs on customers and prospects. It’s one reason why more than two years ago Nissan invested in a CRM solution that logs and tracks both digital and contact center information.   

When a prospect requests a brochure on the website, for example, the activity is logged automatically so Nissan can track what happens afterward. Or if a current Nissan owner visits the site and then calls in with an issue, the CRM system can alert the agent that the customer has requested a brochure on a new model—indicating that he’s back in the market for a car.   

“Every piece where a customer requests something, we tie it all together,” says Anne McGraw, Nissan USA’s senior manager of customer experience. But the path to acquire these capabilities had challenges.   

Good CaRMa   

Disparate departments are a common problem among automakers, says Patrick Pelata, Salesforce’s chief automotive officer. “Historically, these companies have pretty siloed functions,” he adds. Quality control, dealer management, customer service, and different marketing organizations all have disconnected systems and customer databases.   

Nissan wasn’t an exception. McGraw recalls the archaic system preceding the CRM implementation— one in which Excel spreadsheets extended across the company like chicken wire. “Our call centers didn’t have a simple or easy interface to see customer information,” she says. “There was a lot of manual work and it was a slow and cumbersome process to view customer history and what [customer] needs might be.”  

 Nissan also had so many different systems in place that consolidating everything under a single tool became a major project, a complete rip-and-replace of old systems and processes. Because of this, Nissan needed to go all in. “We couldn’t go live with a new system and still have people using the old one,” McGraw says.  

Although an executive in customer quality championed the implementation, the case had to be made delicately across the entire Nissan organization. Old ways are comfortable and individuals tend to stick with what they know when given   a choice. “People were nervous,” McGraw recalls. “There were a lot of anxieties. Would this be reliable? Would it slow me down? Why is this better than what we currently have? There was a lot of handholding and gentle training.”

Ultimately, Nissan’s CRM solution was a product of necessity: customer habits, like millennial car purchasing trends and website browsing behaviors, had transformed. When customers called Nissan’s contact center, they wanted information and assistance immediately. They didn’t want the service representative to look it up and contact them later.

For the two and a half years that the CRM system has been active, Nissan has focused it on both the corporate and dealer levels. Currently, Nissan wants to provide greater visibility for dealers. “The ideal state is that the dealers know everything that we know about a person in terms of contact with previous Nissan dealerships, consumer issues, service histories they might have had at other dealerships,” McGraw says. “Right now, we’re baby-stepping into it.”


If a customer calls the Nissan contact center and Nissan needs more information about that customer or needs the dealer to take action, the corporate office can send that request out to the relevant parties. However, at this point there isn’t yet a common portal for dealers to log in and access information about a customer or prospect, though this is a feature that Nissan is working to implement.

All things considered, Nissan is one of the earlier adopters of CRM within the automotive space, Pelata says.

Today the challenges are less centered on unifying different internal departments and more on incorporating new channels. The connected car, Pelata points out, used to be a tool to address technical issues; now it’s becoming a customer service channel. Similarly, social media has exploded in ways that many automakers didn’t anticipate.

“Social media is defining the brand more today than advertising,” Pelata says. “[Automakers] need to publish on Facebook, have people interacting, [and maintain] dozens and dozens of Facebook pages. Ford has 1,500 pages on Facebook.”

Social services

In 2011, Nissan tasked Marx, a two-decade veteran at the company, to build the company’s social presence. “We wanted Nissan to be big in social,” he says. The reasoning was more substantive than a desire to trend hop, particularly for vehicles like the Versa series, which cater to younger consumers. These are the very millennials that research before they buy and seek recommendations from friends and family. To that end, Nissan has built out numerous social presences— unique Facebook pages dedicated to its various automobiles. For Marx, it’s about playing the long game.

“We’re hoping to turn someone from a first-time buyer into a loyal Nissan buyer and be an advocate of a brand to their friends,” he explains. “That’s how we try to leverage social. It’s promoting advocacy and evangelism.”

It’s a strategy that requires consistent nurturing, even when somebody isn’t currently in a buying cycle. After all, a car purchase isn’t like buying another can of Coke. In fact, Marx identifies a three- to four-year window to build a relationship.

That relationship is contingent on content—much of it distributed through social channels. That content can include anything from tips to improve the owner experience to distributing pictures of Versa Note owners to create a sense of community. Some of that content revolves around corporate sponsorships—as diverse as the Heisman Trophy Trust, Habitat for Humanity, and the Gran Turismo series of video games for Sony Playstation.

While these partnerships drove much of Nissan’s early social media-dispersed content, Marx has found that social media followers are most interested in content about its cars, where engagement rates double compared to semi-related content that focuses on Nissan partners. “It’s the reason people follow us on Facebook,” Marx says. “They want to talk about our cars and anything that has to do with motorsports and driving.”

Nissan also distinguishes itself by providing social customer service. Unlike other automakers, Nissan unifies the organization around customer service needs—liaising with IT and engineering to create consolidated processes.

This is where McGraw steps in; she oversees a team responsible for evaluating and responding to Facebook service queries. The service component within social media was an initial surprise, McGraw adds. “Tying social media into the other channels was something we should have seen coming,” she explains. “It wasn’t hard to put in, but there was a gap for a while.”

Nissan has since sealed that gap. The team logs social media queries— depending on their nature—into the CRM system. Basic product questions aren’t important enough to track. “We won’t [log interactions into CRM] unless we’re 100% sure we know who [the customers] are,” McGraw says. “If the conversation gets to a point where they self-identify, we log those social interactions. If someone has a problem, that’s logged, captured, and escalated.”

An ancillary benefit to Facebook, she adds, is that it’s an incredibly reliable reporting mechanism. For whatever reason, customers are more detailed and specific about issues on social media than on email or the telephone. “We’ve found that if people indicate issues on social media, it’s quickly validated by others,” she says. “It’s a leading indicator for us too—we hear about things on social before we hear about them through the contact center or our dealers, and we use it for [car] feature feedback.”

For the future

For Nissan as a whole, the coming fiscal year is one of hope. The company’s performance last year was underwhelming, which company CEO Carlos Ghosn blamed on a supply chain issue that severely hurt its U.S. business. A strong performance in the U.S.—as well as in China—will determine whether the company meets its sales target of 5.3 million units.

Mike Jackson, director of North American production forecasts at automotive research firm IHS, is optimistic, especially from a product standpoint. “Nissan has been doing rather well,” he says, anticipating that the Versa Note will help its future sales. “The product is still quite fresh. We’re constantly looking at things from a fashion perspective. [The Versa Note] is a much newer offering and for such a compact vehicle it does a very good job creating an open greenhouse. The layout is strong and has a more modern feel, rather than traditional like other manufacturers.”

Exactly what millennials want to hear.

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