The electric Nissan Leaf won't go on sale until later this year, and it won't be available nationwide for another year after that, yet it's already a widely anticipated new model. Nissan is drumming up business early, claiming 15,000 reservations already. While the Leaf itself is interesting enough, I'm most curious about a unique marketing effort using the Apple iPhone. In fact, when I read the press release about it, I couldn't tell if it was from Nissan or Apple.
"Nissan and its zero-emission Nissan Leaf are proud to be one of the first brands and the only automotive brand to date to use Apple's innovative iAd for iPhone. Just like the iPhone, Nissan Leaf is 100 percent electric and 100 percent in demand as the world's first mass-production, zero-emission car."
This is a good circumstance for Nissan. Who wouldn't want to be tightly associated with the uber-popular iPhone and iPad? Given that Nissan likely understands that its first drivers will be trendsetters or fast followers, hooking its star to Apple is a great idea. Plus, I do not think it is a coincidence that the video and voiceover format mimics that of Apple's instructional videos found on their own site.
When you have a new offering, partnerships can be very effective in giving people the brand perception you seek. Ford announced a partnership with Microsoft during the New York auto show this year seeking to develop energy management software for -- you guessed it -- electric vehicles. The trend is clear: In a new market like the electric vehicle market, guilt by association is a good thing.
But the Leaf will have to not only market its attributes but it will also have to create a market for electric vehicles and educate people about the products. Sure, the Tesla Roadster is available but at a price tag of around $100,000 it is certainly not mainstream.
The average Joe will want to know a lot about owning an electric vehicle before taking the plunge. Questions like, "What happens if it runs out of charge in the middle of the highway?" to "What happens if it rains, are there electrocution risks?" While these may seem outlandish, there are sites all over the Internet with people asking questions just like these.
So Nissan not only needs to market what its car is and does but it really has to dispel myths and notions about the electric vehicle category in general. Prius really did the heavy lifting for the hybrid, clearing a path for all comers from here on out and Nissan will have to do similarly for electrics.
How Nissan will continue to market the Leaf appears to be up in the air. While annual sales won't be anywhere near the popular Altima, I'd venture to say the Leaf is the biggest launch in the history of the company. The Leaf could stand out as Nissan's "Prius" -- the car that defines a market and becomes the Kleenex brand of the entire group. Right now the electric market is without a clear leader.
With that in mind it should come as no surprise that the launch plans for Leaf are a hotly debated topic among Nissan's brass in Nashville and the company's global headquarters in Yokohama, Japan. After Nissan lost its newly crowned CMO Joel Ewanick after a mere six weeks (he joined Nissan after some stellar years at Hyundai, but bailed to run marketing for GM), it's safe to say the earth is still cooling in Nashville. Nissan's new CMO, Jon Brancheau, was running global Infiniti marketing for the last few years.
While I've heard rumors that all marketing for the Leaf could be coordinated from Japan, I sure hope that isn't true. Brancheau and his team at Nissan (and at the agency, TWBA\Chiat\Day LA) should get their proper due to launch the Leaf for U.S. consumers. Coordinating a U.S. launch from a market and culture that is not as attuned to the needs and issues of our country could be a mistake.I know from my experience with DaimlerChrysler that executives from other markets have a tendency to believe that their ability to dominate their own markets is the recipe for winning in the U.S. Yet, time and time again, they come up short. I remember talking with one German executive who said that the U.S. is more like dealing with all of the European countries combined than a single country because of its diversity and differences in habits, needs and nuances. Let's hope, for Nissan's sake, that it realizes the importance of relinquishing authority to its local market.