Nissan North America, Inc.

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Nissan North America, Inc.


18501 S. Figueroa St.
Gardena, California 90248
Telephone: (310) 532-3111
Fax: (310) 771-3343
Web site:



Nissan launched the biggest marketing effort in its history, the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign, in August 1996. The $200 million budget was four times the previous budget and placed Nissan behind only General Motors in spending on advertising. "Enjoy the Ride" was designed as a brand identity campaign. Its intent was to remind consumers of Nissan's deep heritage and love of cars and to convince potential customers that the company's cars were fun to buy and drive. Nissan also wanted to persuade customers that their feedback and car-buying experiences were important.

The campaign encompassed the gamut of marketing. Spots appeared on network as well as cable television, on syndicated shows, and on televised sporting events. An extensive outdoor and print campaign ran in tandem with the television ads, with advertisements appearing on buses, billboards, benches, and other places. The campaign, which ended in late 1997, boasted more than a dozen television spots with various Nissan automobiles and included the unveiling of the 1998 Nissan Altima.

Each ad starred an elderly Japanese man with a Jack Russell terrier. The character, intended to symbolize Nissan's heritage, was inspired by Yutaka Katayama, president of Nissan from 1965 to 1975 and known as Mr. K. Katayama's personal philosophy was "Love people. Love cars. Love life," and this was the philosophy behind the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign.


Historically, automobile advertising in the United States was not innovative. Most television commercials showed a new car driving down a scenic road, with a narrator describing the car's features. Research indicated that many viewers disliked the typical car ads, which motivated Bob Thomas, at the time the president and CEO of Nissan's U.S. operations, to strive for something unconventional and different. Rob Siltanen, a creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day, Nissan's advertising agency, told Adweek, "We discovered that consumers hate car advertising … They said it's all the same—shiny cars driving down roads. They could smell them coming. As soon as they saw the car, they flipped the channel." In USA Today, Tom Orbe, Nissan's vice president of marketing, agreed, "If you asked someone if they'd rather see a car ad or get a root canal, they'd say they'd rather get a root canal."

Nissan decided to gamble on its brand identity rather than on individual models of cars and hoped to present its brand image in an innovative fashion. Thomas asserted that, because many automobile manufacturers produced good cars, "a good product is no longer good enough" in the industry. He stated, "We at Nissan are on a mission to put sales prospects and Nissan owners first. Ultimately, this will increase sales retention rates and generate potential owners who actively seek out our brand, not our lowest sale price." The brand image Nissan hoped to convey was the love of life, cars, and driving.

The campaign was launched in August 1996 with the two-minute spot "Dream Garage," which appeared during the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. The spot introduced the Mr. K. character in a dreamlike garage filled with classic Datsun and Nissan models. It ended with the tag line "Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride." The spot was designed to cement Nissan's brand identity in viewers' minds and to evoke the thrill of car ownership.

Nissan followed up "Dream Garage" with "Toys" in November 1996. This animated spot featured a GI Joe-type character who drove off in a Nissan convertible with a Barbie character, leaving a Ken look-alike pouting in the background. The ad was set to the song "You Really Got Me" by Van Halen. The spot was immensely popular and received awards as the best commercial of the year from USA Today, Rolling Stone, Adweek, and other publications.

Encouraged by the positive response, Nissan continued the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign into 1997 and hoped that sales would follow. Although 1996 sales fell 2.7 percent from 1995, Thomas told the Los Angeles Times that a Nissan survey revealed that brand awareness had risen by 30 percent and that the brand's likability had gone up by 100 percent.


According to Nissan, its primary target market included college-educated, upscale individuals who typically purchased new import automobiles. Because this consumer group invariably disliked car commercials, Nissan sought to connect with potential buyers by presenting a fun and quirky marketing campaign. Chiat/Day's Siltanen told the New York Times, "… auto advertising is No. 1 least liked. So you give them [viewers] things that delight them, that reward them, for watching a commercial and treat them as if they have brains." Nissan's Orbe elaborated on the idea behind the campaign by saying, "No running footage. No performance specs. In order to reach our audience and effectively invite it to like us, as a car company, we had to create commercials that were 'bigger' than that." Nissan bet that the campaign would convey the message that Nissan cars were both reliable and unique, built for people who embraced life and loved cars and driving. If the viewers liked Nissan, it was thought, they would then visit a Nissan dealer.

One of the hurdles Nissan needed to overcome in its marketing campaign was to convince the target market that its cars were on a par with those of rivals Toyota and Honda. In USA Today Ron Pinnelli, an auto analyst with AutoData, stated, "People's perception is that [Nissan's] quality is not up to the level of Toyota and Honda … They have really not gotten their quality message across." In fact, there was evidence confirming the quality and reliability of Nissan's cars. A 1997 study by the research firm J.D. Power and Associates indicated that in the first 90 days of ownership the Nissan Altima had the fewest number of reported complaints among midsize sedans. Nissan needed a method for conveying this information to would-be consumers in a convincing, effective manner.


The 1990s were a difficult period in the U.S. automobile market as U.S. manufacturers became more competitive and Japanese makers introduced strong models. Although Nissan held steady with its popular Altima and surpassed Honda in 1993, the company was not as competitive as it wished to be, and Nissan's market share began to dwindle. According to BusinessWeek, in 1996, the year the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign began, Nissan's market share dropped from 5.2 percent to 5 percent. The Los Angeles Times reported that Nissan's sales had risen 8.4 percent in January 1997, but competitors Toyota and Honda enjoyed increases of 52.8 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively. In comparison, Nissan's increase seemed insignificant.

MR. K.

Some observers questioned the decision to use a Japanese character to convey the spirit of Nissan. Japanese corporations were generally wary of promoting their cultural heritage, partly because of the 1992 "Buy America" campaign that had promoted the big three U.S. automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

Some observers attributed Nissan's slip in market share to the fact that the company was not manufacturing new models or offering popular styles, such as sports utility vehicles. Toyota and Honda both had new sports utility vehicles on the market, but Nissan's newest model lagged more than a year behind. While Toyota and Honda's midsize sedans had become roomier in order to compete with the popular Ford Taurus, the Nissan Altima had not. In addition, Nissan did not introduce a new car for an entire year after it launched the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign.

Nissan's main competitors in the U.S. market were fellow Japanese companies Honda and Toyota. The Nissan Altima was in the same class as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, and each had a luxury line to cater to the high-end consumer. Also prominent in the car market were American manufacturers General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. According to Market Share Reporter, in 1996 these three U.S. automakers had market shares of 32.1, 25.1, and 15.9 percent, respectively. Other Japanese companies with U.S. models included Mazda, Subaru-Isuzu, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki, but because their market shares were considerably less, they were not considered as serious competition to Nissan.


Despite declining sales in 1996 that, in part, led to the announcement in early 1997 that Nissan would reduce its workforce by 450 jobs in sales and marketing, the company forged ahead with the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign. In Advertising Age Nissan's Thomas affirmed, "Our research confirms that our brand campaign has had a huge impact on the awareness and imagery of the Nissan brand … It's inarguably a huge success." It was believed that because "Enjoy the Ride" was a long-term brand-building campaign, it would take time for sales to follow.

Nissan yielded, however, to dealer complaints that the spots were unsuccessful in generating sales and dealership traffic by adding regional spots that focused more on the product than the brand. These ads ran in tandem with the "Enjoy the Ride" spots and featured a cameo appearance by the Mr. K. character. Nissan spokesperson Gerry Spahn told Newsday, "They're going to focus more on the product, on the technical specifications and on the pricing … Basically, they're going to be more traditional ads."

"Enjoy the Ride" started out 1997 with two spots that premiered during the telecast of Super Bowl XXXI, assuring an estimated 140 million viewers. Nissan's Orbe stated, "We've worked hard to break through the commercial clutter, giving consumers innovative advertising that not only entertains, but also reinforces Nissan's image as a creative company offering cars that are fun to drive." The first spot, "Doggie Mind Control," showcased the Nissan Pathfinder and featured a dog and its entranced owner cruising the neighborhood in the middle of the night. The dog drove and picked up dog friends until there was no more room in the car. They then left the owner standing in the street. The song "Low Rider" by War played in the background. The second spot, "Pigeons," showed a flock of pigeons in bomber jackets chasing and "attacking" a just washed Nissan Maxima.

In mid-July 1997, Nissan unveiled its 1998 Altima with three new spots that featured the tag line "Have you seen it?" Prior to the Altima's launch, Nissan initiated an introductory campaign that included advertising on billboards, posters, and bus wraps and shelters, all with the Mr. K. character asking, "Have you seen it?" It was the first new product to be introduced since the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign started, and Nissan had high hopes for the Altima. "People have told us how much they love our campaign and its character," said Orbe. "And as everyone has come to know, wherever the magical man is, wonderful things happen. Now, with the launch of a new Altima, we're telling everyone we have something special worth checking out." One of the spots, "Farmer," showed the transformation of a grim-faced farmer when he traded in his old pickup truck for an Altima. He returned from the dealership singing to the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" and speedily driving in circles. "Witness Protection" portrayed a man getting ready to start his new life in a witness protection program. He was issued an Altima, which then attracted the attention of passersby, a far cry from the low-key image he wished to adopt.

The final spots in the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign debuted in November 1997 and featured the 1998 Frontier pickup truck with the motto "Dogs love trucks." As Chiat/Day's Siltanen explained, "People trust their dogs, and because the majority of truck owners are dog owners, we used dogs to call attention to the Frontier's features." One of the spots, entitled "Chair," showed a dog taking its slumbering owner on a joyride through the city streets on a recliner. They overcame obstacles such as cars and pedestrians, and at one point they went under a semi truck in the reclined position. The chair stopped in front of a Nissan agency, the owner woke up, and the two drove home in a new Frontier.


Many of the 1997 "Enjoy the Ride" spots earned accolades equal to the prizewinning 1996 ads "Dream Garage" and "Toys." Advertising Age voted "Chair" the third best television spot for 1997 in the automotive category and named TBWA Chiat/Day the 1997 U.S. agency of the year, in large part because of its innovative work on the "Enjoy the Ride" campaign. Ad Track, USA Today's poll that tabulated the popularity and effectiveness of ad campaigns, ranked "Enjoy the Ride" as the third most popular campaign it reviewed in 1997. Of those surveyed, 35 percent stated that they liked the ads. The effectiveness rating was just above average.

Advertising Age published results from CNW Marketing/Research that reported the awareness of Nissan increasing from 15 percent before the campaign to 42 percent in January 1997. And while Nissan made it onto only 4.2 percent of the shopping lists of potential buyers before "Enjoy the Ride," in January 1997, 11.8 percent stated that they were considering purchasing a Nissan. The Mr. K. character was also well known, with 78 percent of those in one survey recognizing him as the Nissan spokesperson.

Despite positive affirmations from Nissan's Thomas regarding the effectiveness of the brand campaign, sales failed to reach expectations, with USA Today reporting that Nissan's U.S. sales had fallen by $580 million in 1997. Chiat/Day's Siltanen confessed to the New York Times, "The backlash to the 'Enjoy the ride' campaign kind of caught us by surprise, … because everybody said, 'This is great advertising.' We were riding and smiling all the way, then people said it wasn't working." As a result Thomas left the company in October 1997. Michael Seergy, who was promoted to vice president and general manager of Nissan's U.S. division, indicated that the company would alter its marketing strategies, and he told USA Today, "We were focused on the brand. Everything was the brand. We didn't tell people anything about the product. Now we will."


Armstrong, Larry. "In Reverse at Nissan." BusinessWeek, March 9, 1998, p. 42.

Eldridge, Earle. "Struggling Nissan Changes Focus: Carmaker Rolls Out New Models, New Sales Tactics." USA Today, May 28, 1998, p. B6.

Elliott, Stuart. "Nissan Exults Over an Offbeat Campaign, Despite Flat Sales and a Debate on Ads That 'Entertain.'" New York Times, August 14, 1997, p. D5.

Enrico, Dottie. "Nissan's Ads Take High Road: Sales Stall." USA Today, November 24, 1997.

――――――. "Nissan Ads Take Viewers on Joy Ride." USA Today, November 11, 1996, p. B5.

Garfield, Bob. "Nissan's Gentle Mr. K Holds Too Many Cards." Advertising Age, August 12, 1996.

Gellene, Denise. "Nissan Will Give an Overhaul to Its TV Campaign." Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1997, p. D1.

――――――. "A Return to Their Roots: Campaigns Trumpet Companies' Japanese Side." Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1996, p. D2.

Incantalupo, Tom. "Automakers Launch Recall of Offbeat TV Commercials." Newsday, February 20, 1997, p. A49.

Johnson, Bradley, and Mark Rechtin. "Nissan Wants Sales to Enjoy the Ride, Too." Advertising Age, February 24, 1997, p. 1F.

Parpis, Eleftheria. "New Directions." Adweek, January 27, 1997, p. 27.

Wells, Melanie. "Nissan Stays on Offbeat Track with Latest Altima Ads." USA Today, August 14, 1997, p. B2.

                                             Mariko Fujinaka



In 2004 Nissan North America, the North American subsidiary of Japanese automaker Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., introduced a redesign of its Quest minivan. Originally a joint project with the Ford Motor Company, the Quest was selling only about 30,000 units per year by that time, and it was felt that the vehicle needed to be radically reconceived in order to compete with other minivans. Imports had risen to 34 percent of all minivan sales, meaning there was a solid market for the Quest to tap into. In an effort to make gains in this market, Nissan introduced the redesigned Quest in 2003 and 2004.

Since the new Quest was a bold, sleek-looking minivan, it was decided to market the vehicle as the minivan of choice for what Nissan termed "Sexy Moms"—younger, hipper, financially successful suburban mothers and families that wanted the interior space of a minivan but were uncomfortable with the segment's dowdy image. The ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles was brought in to handle the $20 million campaign, which featured a major television spot, print ads, and billboards. The TV spot featured young, hip women going out at night in the city or loading musical instruments and surfboards into their Quests. It closed with the tagline "Moms have changed, shouldn't the minivan?" The message was that the Quest was a car for independent, image-conscious drivers. Nissan also sponsored events, such as a fashion show during New York's fashion week, in an effort to reach an audience that might not have been familiar with the earlier version of the Quest.

The campaign succeeded in attracting a younger, wealthier consumer than the original Quest and received a 2005 Gold EFFIE Award from the New York American Marketing Association. The median age for Quest drivers during the relaunch was 47, the youngest in the minivan segment, and the typical Quest buyer had an income of approximately $98,000. Sales of the new Quest were, however, below expectations overall. This was blamed more on the minivan's radical design than on the marketing strategy.


The Nissan Quest began as a joint project between Nissan and Ford's Mercury division. Initial models of the car were all but indistinguishable from the Mercury Villager. Both were smaller minivans meant to serve as an entry into the lucrative minivan market for each company. The vehicles were designed by Nissan and built around Nissan engines but were actually constructed by the Ford Motor Company. The collaboration was not a particularly successful one. In 1998 Nissan only moved about 30,000 units of the Quest, while competitors such as the Dodge Caravan sold more than 300,000 units.

The Quest's failures were emblematic of company-wide shortcomings. By 1999 Nissan was nearly $22.9 billion in debt. A new CEO, Carlos Ghosn, was brought in to stem the tide of red ink that year. Ghosn immediately instituted the Nissan Revival Plan, requesting a $5.2 billion cash infusion from French company Renault, which owned more than 36 percent of Nissan stock in 2004, to help the brand revitalize its fleet. The plan also included a new emphasis on deficit reduction, improved vehicle performance, increasing the company's revenue flow, and working closely with parent company Renault. A key part of this plan was the decision to focus on building a smaller number of vehicle lines. Model quality, not quantity, would be the order of the day.

During the revitalization, Nissan and Ford agreed to discontinue the Quest/Villager project, ending with the 2002 model, even though the program was originally slated to continue for another three years. Ford decided to cancel the Villager line altogether after the 2002 model. Nissan, however, had other plans. In the short term the line was to be suspended for one year so that its design could be reworked.

The new Quest had an aggressive style, likened by some to the Renault's Scénic, a sleek, compact European multipurpose vehicle, similar to an American minivan. To give it a sleeker look than its competitors, it featured a longer wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axle) than most minivans. The minivan's central control stack, located in front of the driver, was designed to look like a table, giving the interior a unique appearance. Nissan also emphasized performance. The car's second and third rows of seats both folded flat into the base of the vehicle, allowing for extra storage space, and side-impact airbags were meant to appeal to safety-conscious drivers.

The relaunch was planned for model year 2004.When he became CEO in 1999, Ghosn vowed to make sure every Nissan automobile would be redesigned by 2004. As a result Nissan had a number of major new projects emerging in the mid-2000s, including a redesign of its popular Maxima, Xterra, and Altima lines. The company was also introducing a new sport-utility vehicle (SUV) line, the Murano. The Quest would be Nissan's major effort to break into the minivan market. From 1997 to 2004 imports had risen from 9 percent of the minivan market to 34 percent. Nissan hoped the Quest would be able to capitalize on this trend.


In 1999 Nissan Motor Company, Ltd., was struggling financially. It was $22.9 billion in debt and was widely viewed as a company in decline. That year Nissan entered into an alliance with French company Renault. Renault gained more than one-third of voting stock in Nissan and worked to strengthen its partner almost immediately. The most visible part of this strengthening was the appointment of Renault's Carlos Ghosn as Nissan's chief operating officer later that year. Within two years Ghosn would become the global CEO of Nissan. Born in Brazil to Lebanese parents and later educated in France, Ghosn had an international outlook that had served him well during previous stints with Michelin and Renault.

Upon joining Nissan, Ghosn instituted a major initiative called the Nissan Revitalization Plan. He put the company's survival first and bypassed the keiretsu system (a Japanese practice in which certain established suppliers received special treatment) in favor of pursuing the lowest-priced supplies and materials. Ghosn also pledged to have every vehicle in the Nissan fleet redesigned by 2004. To foster better cooperation among Nissan's divisions, he instituted Cross-Functional Teams, groups put together from different divisions of the company.

The Nissan Revitalization Plan was wildly successful, and within five years the company was out of debt and turning a $7 billion profit. Ghosn's success gave him a high profile internationally. In Japan he was memorialized in an anime comic book that presented the businessman as a kind of superhero. He was even encouraged by some to run for president of Lebanon.


With a sticker price of about $25,500, the Quest was geared toward middle-class car buyers. Like previous Quest models, the new version was particularly aimed at young suburban families interested in a sportier minivan. Nissan saw the introduction of the new Quest as an opportunity to redefine the minivan market with a bold new design. This separated Quest from the pack in the minds of image-conscious consumers. As with all minivans, interior space was key, and the new Quest featured three rows of seating to accommodate larger families. But the rise of SUVs had created a demand for a larger exterior as well.

In particular, Nissan aimed the new Quest at female suburban mothers whom they called "Sexy Moms," more affluent, image-conscious car buyers. Nissan was looking for individualistic mothers who would be enticed by its splashy new look.


With competitors building ever-more-spacious minivans, such as Honda and its Odyssey model, Nissan decided that the Quest's relatively compact size was a liability. The Quest had traditionally matched up against smaller minivans such as the Dodge Caravan, but the Quest had never been able to cut into Dodge's market share, with the Caravan posting a 10 to 1 sales advantage in 1998 alone.

In an effort to revitalize the Quest line, Nissan made it bigger. The Quest became a midsize minivan, sized about halfway between the old Quest and large minivans like the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Toyota Windstar. Now the Quest's primary competition would be the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna.

The minivan market was rife with already successful vehicle lines, such as the Toyota Caravan, with strong name recognition and loyal drivers. Nissan saw an opening, however, in the relative blandness of many of these competitors. Unlike SUVs or sports cars, minivans were seen by many as a more practical automobile, and as a result few vehicles in the class were designed as boldly as the Quest. In a way the Quest would be an avant-garde minivan, attracting younger, hipper buyers.


Nissan hoped drivers would see the Quest as a "sexy" minivan. This was a departure, because minivans were almost always sold on their practicality and utility, not their design. In an effort to show off this sexiness, the company put a major push behind the North American relaunch. There was a major television campaign orchestrated by TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles, along with magazine and newspaper ads and billboards, also designed by TBWA. The total budget exceeded $20 million.

Nissan's goals included tripling pre-launch sales volume, attracting newer and more affluent consumers, and making design a key motivation for purchasing the vehicle. Because so many minivans emphasized reliability and safety in their commercials, it was felt that this strategy was no longer effective at reaching consumers. Therefore a focus on the design advantages of the new Quest had practical value as well. Nissan was aiming the Quest at drivers who might not own a minivan, people who may have been put off by the segment's conservative image. Nissan and TBWA\Chiat\Day called these drivers "Sexy Moms," a play on the "Soccer Moms" who were widely seen as the minivan's usual target market.

To reach "Sexy Moms" print ads ran in such progressive publications as Organic Style and Yoga Journal. In addition Nissan sponsored a number of untraditional events to reach new customers. One of the most notable of these was a fashion show at the Altman Building in New York City during Fashion Week 2003. The company also sponsored the National Women's Show in Toronto, Canada, in November 2003, to coincide with the launch of the 2004 model. The show functioned as a kind of public trade exhibit for various health and beauty companies.

The center of the campaign was a 30-second television commercial. Set in a trendy urban environment, it showed a group of young women piling into a Quest for a fun night out in the city. The spot also featured women loading musical instruments and surfboards into their Quest, with a voice-over that asked, "Moms have changed, shouldn't the minivan?"


Results of the campaign were mixed. Critics loved the commercials. In 2005 the campaign won the prestigious Gold EFFIE Award in the Automotive and Vehicles category. Presented by the New York American Marketing Association, the EFFIE honored the strong progress the campaign had made in increasing consumer awareness of the vehicle among targeted demographics. The campaign was credited with helping the Quest achieve a median buyer age of 47, the lowest in the minivan segment. Nissan also reached its goal of tapping into the affluent-driver market: the average annual household income for Quest buyers was approximately $98,000. Efforts to promote the look of the Quest also appeared to have succeeded, because customers who bought the Quest listed "exterior styling" among the top five reasons for their purchase, a rarity in the minivan segment.

Overall, however, sales of the new Quest were disappointing. Nissan had hoped to move 80,000 to 85,000 units annually. First-year sales topped out at 30,448, well below what was anticipated. The numbers were barely better than pre-launch sales and were significantly behind the old Quest's 1995 sales peak of 54,050 units. Fortunately for Nissan, this disappointment came amid other success: the Nissan Revival Plan produced a $7 billion profit by 2004, with the company clearing itself of debt. The automaker remained positive about the Quest, though some blamed its restyling for the lower-than-anticipated sales numbers.

The automaker itself admitted that the style might have been too forward looking. Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's design director, told reporters that the new Quest was just "too cutting edge." The company believed the basic design would still work in the long run and planned to tweak the model a little to get sales back on track. It was considering dropping some of the Quest's bolder innovations, such as the vehicle's centrally located instrument gauges, in an effort to make the car more "warm."


Flaherty, Julie. "Guys Mod Up to Solve Their Midlife Minivan Minicrisis." New York Times, October 22, 2003.

Hakim, Danny, and Fara Warner. "Sure, It's Pragmatic. But Stylish? The Minivan Is Getting a Makeover." New York Times, August 27, 2004.

Howard, Theresa. "Nissan Adds 'Stylish Flair' to Minivan." USA Today, November 30, 2003.

Mandel, Dutch. "Here Today, Ghosn Tomorrow: Thirty Hours Shadowing the World's Most Extraordinary Car Executive." AutoWeek, January 3, 2005.

Maynard, Micheline. "Chic? Sexy? Is Japan Really Talking Minivans?" New York Times, May 25, 2003.

Patton, Phil. "Inspired by Japan, the Copycats Are Now the Copied." New York Times, October 25, 2004.

Rechtin, Mark. "Nissan Design Chief Says Quest Minivan Styling Went Too Far." AutoWeek, August 23, 2004.

――――――. "Nissan Unveils a Redesigned Quest and Maxima." AutoWeek, January 6, 2003.

Tadesse, Luladey B., and Cori Bolger. "Women Have Become Car-Buying Force." Detroit News, June 19, 2005.

Zaun, Todd. "Nissan Profit Up as Luxury Models Sell Well." New York Times, April 27, 2004.

                                 Guy Patrick Cunningham



In the 1970s and 1980s the luxury component of the U.S. auto market stayed relatively immune from the threats of Japanese competition, which was able to zero in on the budget and mid-priced segments of the market because of complacency in the American auto industry. The high-end segment remained divided between American and European auto producers, both with their own loyal customers and identity, as had been the case for years.

Honda introduced its high-end Acura, the first Japanese luxury line, to the U.S. market in 1986. Then Nissan introduced the Infiniti line in 1989, the same year that Toyota presented the Lexus. These Japanese luxury cars swiftly gained market share as well as acclaim for their quality and reliability. The widespread belief that no one would pay more than $20,000 (where the "luxury" segment began at that time; this baseline rose to about $35,000 by 1997) for a Japanese car was decisively put to rest.

Nissan created a separate division with its own showrooms, the Infiniti Division, to market and sell the Infiniti line. Its flagship sedan, the V-8 powered Q45, was one of the biggest, most powerful, and most expensive—priced at around $38,400—Japanese cars sold in the United States when it was introduced. The smaller M30, with a price tag of $23,500, was introduced at the same time.

The early 1990s were ripe for the new entrants into the luxury auto market. Baby boomers were hitting their prime earning years, and many of them were new luxury car buyers. They did not necessarily have allegiance to the entrenched American and European brands. Moreover, they had positive experiences with lower-end Japanese cars, making them more receptive to the new Japanese luxury models.

It took a long time for Infiniti to get its advertising footing. Since its early minimalist campaign that featured rocks and trees, Infiniti struggled to communicate a clear brand message and information about its product. At the end of 1996 Infiniti turned to the agency TBWA Chiat/Day, of Venice, California, to "start from scratch and do another breakthrough campaign," explained agency chairman and chief creative officer Lee Clow to AdWeek; the mandate was to "push luxury car advertising to a new level the way we did for Nissan." The result was the $80 million "Own One and You'll Understand" campaign, which featured an ongoing series of television spots illustrating Infiniti owners' unwavering devotion to their cars. One, called "Half," showed a man having second thoughts about his impending divorce when he realizes he might have to give up his Infiniti. The ads brought Infiniti renewed media and consumer attention and played a part in the brand finally turning the corner to strong sales.


In the late 1980s the luxury car market experienced change and expansion. "Mystique and ostentation" were "no longer the main attraction," according to Alex Taylor III of Fortune magazine. Even status-conscious shoppers sought value, quality, and durability, in part because the one luxury they did not have was time. For many of the newly affluent baby boomers, these were fundamental values—part of the way they defined themselves.

By early 1989 Honda had already sold more than 70,000 Acura Legends. On the other hand, the European car makers were being hurt by the weak dollar; their sales had fallen 26 percent in two years. It was largely the buyers of European luxury cars that Infiniti targeted—for about $40,000, the Q45 was designed to offer comfort, performance, and technology equal to that of European cars costing far more. Cadillac-long considered the premiere American luxury car—generally stayed away from this sophisticated younger market; after flirting with it briefly with the short-lived Cimarron and the Italian-made Allante, Cadillac returned to targeting the male, 60-something crowd. The typical Lincoln purchaser also was male and in his 60s. On the other hand, the typical Acura buyer was 45, earned $88,000 annually (in 1989 dollars), and had already owned Japanese cars. These were exactly the consumers the European auto makers had been targeting and winning.

Infiniti employed a $60 million new-age-flavored campaign to introduce its cars. The 1989 campaign, from Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, featured rocks, meadows, gulls, trees, and water, but no cars—no product shots whatsoever. Although the campaign won praise from some marketing consultants, other analysts such as Taylor of Fortune considered it "perplexing." Others ridiculed it; Time magazine dubbed Infiniti "Most Mysterious New Car." The campaign did not give the Infiniti line the needed lift among consumers. Other factors also contributed to the slow start, however, including 15 fewer showrooms opened by the target date than planned. In 1990 Nissan sold only 7,161 Infinitis in the United States.

A new, more elegant and stylish series of commercials turned the camera on the product. TBWA Chiat/Day used British actor Jonathan Pryce to demonstrate features of the car with simple props against a stark white background. Pryce would become the spokesman for Infiniti for the next five years.

By 1994 Infiniti, along with Lexus and Saturn, ranked as top-scoring brands the third year in a row in a survey of quality and design engineering by market researchers J. D. Power and Associates. That year Infiniti began a concerted effort to reach more women consumers. Forty-three dealers participated in an event in which speakers addressed women—mostly executives and professionals—about topics related to business or lifestyle but not directly related to cars. The aim was to get women into dealerships in a non-sales atmosphere and increase their familiarity with the product. Newsday reported that Infiniti ended up selling cars to 12 percent of the women who attended a forum.

Infiniti developed a new tag line, "Thinking of You," which aired in 1996 with a campaign designed to evoke emotional response. But concrete news about price cuts was drowned out by the emotional impact of the spots. Infiniti abandoned the campaign after several months. Through 1996 Pryce continued to speak for Infiniti. One spot, "That Jazz," had him in a jazz club where Nancy Wilson was singing. As he leaves the club he extols the virtues of Infiniti over a soundtrack of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond's rendition of "Take Five."

The advertisements had gotten more down to earth than the initial approach, and they directly addressed the car's features, but they retained an esoteric edge that shortchanged Infiniti's potential to become a truly popular luxury car. Sales remained below their targets and potential as well, and in late 1996 Infiniti marketing vice president Tom Orbe gave Chiat-Day a clean slate to create a campaign that would break new advertising ground for Infiniti.


Roughly 8 percent of the car-buying population could afford to buy an Infiniti in the mid-1990s. Of this population, Infiniti targeted baby boomers. This group was both expanding the market for luxury cars and bringing new characteristics to the luxury auto market. They had been buying their first cars when the American auto industry was making some of its worst cars ever. Thus, their relationship with the American industry was soured by their formative experiences with cars of questionable quality. Moreover, being a post-World War II generation, they did not shy away from buying Japanese and German products as the previous generation had. Given their ingrained suspicion of American car quality, they were far more likely to turn to European and Japanese brands when they purchased their first luxury car. Here the Japanese had an edge because many boomers had owned lower-priced Japanese cars at least once and experienced their quality and dependability. Known as the "have it all" generation, baby boomers found these attributes particularly attractive because they simply had very little time for tasks like car maintenance.


Infiniti's competition fell into three main categories, decided largely by geographical location: American producers, European producers, and Japanese producers. The Americans, primarily Cadillac and Lincoln, targeted consumers in their later 50s and 60s. The Europeans, primarily BMW and Mercedes-Benz, targeted the traditional middle-aged, high-end consumers but also started to go after the aging boomers, many of whom were just entering the high-end market. Among the Japanese producers, Lexus presented the most direct and daunting challenge. Its tag line, "The relentless pursuit of perfection," initiated in 1989 and used throughout the 1990s, was no exaggeration. Toyota had already achieved the largest market share among baby boomers, so a large portion of potential consumers was open to the appeal of trading up from a Toyota to a Lexus.

A particular challenge for Infiniti in relation to Lexus was product differentiation. In 1997 the Lexus LS 400 was priced at $46,225; the Infiniti Q45 at $44,241. They both featured state-of-the-art technology, superior dealer service, and dependability. They were often mentioned in the same breath to represent Japanese technical or corporate prowess—for example, Bob Garfield's 1995 comment in Advertising Age, "Lexus and Infiniti have changed perceptions of what constitutes automotive luxury and prestige." Although Lexus had been on top in sales volume and customer surveys, in 1996 Infiniti surpassed Lexus in J. D. Powers & Associates' annual customer satisfaction report. It was the first time Lexus fell to number two on the much-watched index. Shortly after that, Lexus shifted its advertising style to a less pretentious, more "funky" approach that was exemplified by Infiniti's "Own One and You'll Understand" campaign. During the 1990s Lexus ads had presented a sophisticated voice. In the fall of 1997 (about four months after the new Infiniti campaign was launched), Lexus introduced a campaign from Team One in El Segundo, California, that unabashedly celebrated the slightly wicked pleasures of its 300-horsepower V-8 GS, "the fastest automatic sedan in the world." The imagery, inspired by the grotesque and eerie work of cartoonist Charles Adams, was accompanied in each spot by the tag line "Something wicked this way comes." While the commercials were visually arresting and fun to watch, the tag line ultimately failed to communicate a substantive message about Lexus.


Although the number of Infiniti owners was not as large as Nissan might have wanted, those owners nevertheless had voiced vigorous appreciation for the vehicles since the inception of the division in 1989. This customer feedback was the origin of the "Own One and You'll Understand" campaign. It reflected the devotion Infiniti owners felt to the brand. The challenge for Nissan was to get those who had never driven an Infiniti, or even a Toyota, to want to experience this satisfying ownership.

Nissan had performed market research that revealed that consumers of luxury vehicles in the 1990s were not as self-consciously highbrow in their tastes as traditional luxury-item consumers; rather, they were "regular people" who happened to have high annual incomes. "There is a myth out there that upscale consumers only enjoy upscale media and entertainment," explained Infiniti marketing vice president Orbe, "but the reality is, they enjoy shows like ER and Seinfeld. Baby boomers are the first generation to grow up in mass entertainment culture. If we want to reach them, we've got to entertain and engage them."

The consumer of luxury products in the 1980s had been far more status-conscious and ostentatious than those in the 1990s. While the boomers of the 1990s appreciated excellence and "the finer things," they were less interested in status symbols. Trying to balance professional lives, family, and recreation, boomers had little spare time for television viewing, making them selective about what they did watch; they tended to do less channel surfing. Advertising had to be highly engaging to hold their attention and avoid being "muted" with the remote. Orbe described the unique Infiniti personality as "youthful, smart, innovative," not coincidentally the core attributes baby boomers seemed to value in themselves and others.


Criticism …

Garfield from Advertising Age: "An anticlimactic ending to a broad, obvious, and derivative commercial."

Los Angeles Times: "If you don't own one, the ad doesn't steer you to why you should."

… and Praise.

Bruce Shulman, general manager of Pray Infiniti, Greenwich, Connecticut: "The direction and message of the advertising are much better and appropriate than they were before."

Entertainment Weekly: Named "Half" as one of the 10 best television commercials of 1997.

When the new campaign was assigned to Chiat-Day at the end of 1996, there was much speculation about whether Pryce would continue to serve as Infiniti spokesman. "There's no mandate for Pryce to be in or out," said agency chairman Clow. "If we think there's a fun twist, we'll do it." But rumors proved correct; Pryce was out, definitive proof that the snob factor was dropped.

"Own One and You'll Understand" was a brand promise of sorts. It reached beyond entertaining the viewers to engaging them in a potentially meaningful experience. The campaign had a two-pronged goal: to arouse non-owners' curiosity about the Infiniti, and to reinforce current owners' pride of ownership. In achieving these two goals, the campaign also would provide Infiniti its own strong identity and differentiate it more strongly from Lexus.

The various television spots, directed by Joe Pytka (his first for Chiat-Day in 20 years), used dark humor. One was set at a funeral and showed an elderly man being buried with his Infiniti. In another a man scrambles through an airport for a set of keys to his Infiniti. In the third spot, "Half," a man is served divorce papers. He is informed that his wife wants half of everything, and he goes into a rage. "She gets half? I'll give her half," he snaps. Then he maniacally takes a chain-saw and cuts in half all his possessions, including a piano, furniture, pool table, and artwork. Next, he grabs an acetylene torch and moves to the garage. But he stops when he comes to his Infiniti. "On second thought, maybe we can work this out," he mutters. The viewers did not learn much about Infinitis, but the message at least was clear: Infiniti owners had a real passion for their cars.

The television campaign covered all geographic areas where Infiniti retailers were located and ran on top prime time and cable network programs. It continued to run through 1997 and into 1998.


In mid-1996 Infiniti dealers were less than happy with the franchise. A significant part of this displeasure was caused by confusion in the advertising message. But by the end of 1997 sales had climbed 17.1 percent to 65,552 units, a record. Dealer profits were higher than ever before. The division overall finally became profitable and recouped its original investment in the United States. The "Own One and You'll Understand" campaign could be credited with a major role in the turnaround.

Indeed, Infiniti saw the campaign as key to its new success; the company extended the campaign into the summer of 1998, with the plan to shift some of the focus from story lines to product features. The lack of such focus had drawn complaints from some critics. "If you don't own one, the ad doesn't steer you to why you should," commented the Los Angeles Times. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age criticized "Half," saying that it had "an anticlimactic ending to a broad, obvious, and derivative commercial."

Nevertheless, simplifying seemed to have worked for Infiniti. Gone were the stuffy English accents and tuxedos. Given the sales data after the campaign began running, the company had successfully leveraged the simple fact that Infiniti owners loved their cars.


Garfield, Bob. "Actor Takes Infiniti on a Tour de Force." Advertising Age, June 9, 1997, p. 53.

Johnson, Bradley and Mark Rechtin. "Nissan Packs $200 Mil into Yearlong Drive for Brand." Advertising Age, August 5, 1996.

Rechtin, Mark. "Turnaround Puts Infiniti on Road to Strong Sales." Automotive News, January 26, 1998, pp. 3-4.

――――――. "Infiniti Alters Ad Strategy." Automotive News, January 20, 1997, p. 6.

Taylor, Alex III. "Nissan's Bold Bid for Market Share." Fortune, January 1, 1990, p. 99.

                                          Cynthia Tokumitsu