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Bolstering the Image of Nissan Is a Tough Assignment for Chiat/Day

March 29, 1988|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Steve Beaumont figures that his vacation lasted five hours. And he was lucky to get that much.

It was early last August, the day after Chiat/Day, the Los Angeles ad agency, landed one of the biggest advertising accounts on the West Coast, the $150-million Nissan business.

Beaumont, then senior art director, had planned to take a week off and move into a new house. But on his first day in the new home--even before lunchtime--the phone rang. On the other end of the line was agency President Lee Clow, asking him to get back to the office, pronto. Beaumont's vacation was over.

And for Chiat/Day, too, there has been no vacation in trying to create a new image for Nissan. Instead, it has been more like eight months at hard labor. For 20 years, the ad firm was run much like an exclusive club, taking on mostly smaller, select clients such as Porsche and Nike. But late last summer, a stumbling Japanese auto maker--formerly named Datsun--placed its advertising hopes in the creative hands of one of the West Coast's most unconventional ad firms.

In some respects, it was as if Bob's Big Boy had hired Wolfgang Puck as its head chef.

Indeed, some analysts say that Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A. is asking Chiat/Day to make meat loaf look like filet mignon. "No matter what their advertising says, Nissan has had no new products in the past year," said Ted Sullivan, director of automotive research at WEFA Group in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Agrees Khaled Majeed, international auto analyst at the New York investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert: "They simply don't have their products to support their claims."

Critics say that Nissan was once an innovator--especially in the late 1960s with the introduction of its 240-Z sports car. But that is no longer the case, Majeed said. "Honda has since laid claim to being the innovator. Toyota remains the quality leader. But Nissan has stopped standing out in the crowd. It got left in the middle without an image."

And so Nissan turned for help to Chiat/Day, a firm known for flamboyant, often controversial commercials--ads that get noticed. Not only did the car maker have an image to repair but weak sales that needed a boost.

Without new models to sell until October, the ad agency began first to work on the image problem.

It introduced television spots that mix quick cuts of the cars in action with longer shots of engineers--who are actually actors--sitting around a table discussing how to build vehicles to fit drivers. The ads all end with the slogan, "Built for the toughest race of all--the human race."

The central message is that each car that rolls off the Nissan assembly line is made with one thing in mind: people.

Like many of Chiat/Day's campaigns, the Nissan ads are controversial in the industry. But they have yet to improve sales. For the first two months of 1988, Nissan car sales are down 28%, while Toyota sales are up 36% and Honda 6%. In an effort to boost sales, Nissan has also introduced its first-ever cash-back incentives and hopes to see better sales figures for March.

Despite the sales figures, Nissan and agency chief Jay Chiat pronounce themselves satisfied and enthusiastic.

"In my 20 years in the advertising business, this is the strongest relationship I've ever experienced between a client and an agency," Chiat said.

But it is too soon, he said, to judge his firm on the basis of Nissan sales. Key to a turnaround in sales, Chiat said, will be the new models Nissan will introduce this fall. By then, Chiat says, his agency will prove its ads can help move Nissan cars and trucks out of dealer showrooms. "With an automobile account, the product is the key. The total job of our agency is to change the perception of potential buyers, so that people who are considering Japanese imports will put Nissan first or second on their lists, not third or fourth."

And Chiat/Day is still at the top of the list at Nissan. "The quality of these people--and their work--is outstanding," said Joe Opre, Nissan's director of advertising. "For an agency that swallowed an account as big as ours, there have been very few missteps.

"We have never regretted the move."

That's no surprise to Beaumont, the former senior art director. "It's hard to explain, but Nissan is in awe of Chiat/Day's reputation," he said. "Nissan will continue to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Indeed, when the agency's creative team presents its ideas to Nissan executives, many of the ad executives frequently come dressed in Levis and open-necked shirts. "Nissan doesn't seem to mind that," said Beaumont, who is now vice president and executive art director at Ketchum Advertising. "In fact, I think they expect it."

It is a peculiar combination. Nissan, after all, is a somewhat stodgy Asian auto giant with layer upon layer of management. Chiat/Day, meanwhile, is an eclectic ad firm that has created many commercials suitable for framing. Some industry critics, however, say its ads are not always suitable for selling products.

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