Nissan North America senior vice president for sales and marketing, Brian Carolin, talks about how his team is getting consumers into dealer showrooms across the country by focusing on innovation and using the brand’s cars as proof points. Equally important, said Carolin, is working to ensure that the sales experience turns these consumers into customers, and keeps them coming back, as an underpinning for planned growth in the North American market.
Question 1: Can you recap the 2011 year for sales for Nissan North America and talk about what drove your results?
A1: The first thing to say is the 2011 Calendar Year was a tremendous performance on the part of the team. If you think about the circumstances, we had the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Our Monozukuri team in Japan did a fantastic job to get our dealers supply. Our Sales and Marketing team also did a great job in getting the message out to consumers that we had supply, we had dealer inventory, whereas Honda and Toyota didn’t. A combination of those two things meant we recovered much more quickly. Since we ended the year selling over a million cars, growing our market share, it was a tremendous achievement.
What drove it? Altima is our number-one car, out top-seller. We’ve managed the aging of that vehicle extremely well. The car continued to hold its own in the segment. We saw the Accord and Camry coming down in market share but we held our presence. That was a really important backbone to the achievement. But on top of that, we launched the new Versa Sedan exceptionally well; we can’t get enough of those cars. Rogue continued to perform extremely strongly.
Question 2: Why did you see such a successful launch of the Versa sedan?
A2: The Versa Sedan – we can look back at that launch and see it as kind of a copy book exercise in marketing positioning. We delivered a very simple message to the consumer; here is a great value-product with a tremendous amount of space and utility. Very simple. More headroom, more legroom per dollar than any other car in America. It was a very compelling message and it resonated very strongly with the consumer in that segment who is driven by practical considerations.
When I say copy book, thinking about all of the new product launches coming up, a new Pathfinder, our Altima, a sedan, and eventually the Versa hatch and the Rogue, all of which are coming in the next 18 months, we have to be equally attentive to positioning those products very clearly, very well in the consumer’s mind, with great advertising, and we’ll continue to be really successful.
Question 3: How will you capitalize on the new products and the innovations offered in those vehicles?
A3: Over the last 18 months, we’ve been much clearer in terms of what Nissan stands for. At our dealer event in August, 2010, we rolled out the Innovation for All communications platform. All of our advertising since then has concentrated on that one attribute. Nissan is the most innovative Japanese car company. Each of our advertising spots, all of our communication, is now very consistent, and we’re going to continue doing that.
The great thing with the new models is that we have some real hardware innovations to which we can talk to. The new Altima, for example, that is coming very soon, we’re combining best-in-class fuel-efficiency with best-in-class acceleration. Now you don’t normally get those things to go together. That’s a great innovation in the mid-sized segment. You take a look at the new Pathfinder, which we are launching here today in Detroit, you look at the access to the back row, it is class leading. You look at the seating configurations, the number of different combinations in the ways that you could collapse or raise the seats, again class leading.
We will be talking all the time about innovation and making sure that at the dealer level, the sales people are well-trained. So when the customer comes into the show room, the salesperson will take them straight to the benefits and features of that vehicle that are truly innovative.
Question 4: How important is continued improvement is Sales Satisfaction to your market share growth plans?
A4: Customer satisfaction has been problematic for the company. I think we have to be very open and transparent about that. For a decade or more, we’ve kind of languished at the bottom of the league table. I’m not happy about that, I’m not proud, I don’t think any of us should be. About a year ago, we had a bad result in the JD Power survey. We put together a task-force approach, and we are beginning to successfully change the culture of the organization, both within Nissan North America but also, crucially important, at the dealer level. You’ve seen that in the most recent (JD Power SSI) survey. JD Power tells us in all the years of the survey, this is the second-highest single-year improvement that they have witnessed.
So, we did a great job, but it’s only step one. Especially as we are rolling out so many new products and the level of conquest business that we need to achieve in order to achieve our sales objectives is at a different level. People are coming to Nissan for the first time, we have to make sure that they have an exceptional experience. Because they are not going to buy, and even if they buy, they are not going to come back and repurchase. So for me, continuing that improvement in sales satisfaction is a number-one priority.