Blessed Is Poore in Spirit, for He Shall Inherit -- Nissanâs BrandsBy Michelle Krebs February 11, 2008
Nissan didnât mount a news conference at the Detroit auto show last month. But the company and its vehicles were still there in force. The $70,000 cult supercar, the 473-horsepower Nissan GT-R, was beckoning gawkers ahead of its midsummer launch. Also the concept minivan, Forum, which Nissan unveiled in December.
It was sort of the same with Ben Poore. He didnât march front and center with a mini-mic, TelePrompTer and portfolio of gestures to address a media throng about sales expectations or future models. But the companyâs new North American vice president of marketing communications was certainly available around the display for interviews.
And even just three months after moving into his job from Ford, the 41-year-old Poore already has reached plenty of conclusions about where he wants to lead the third-ranked Japanese brand in the U.S. market.
Poore believes Nissan can further leverage the mainstream success of its Altima sedan. He thinks a new advertising campaign can breathe some life into the abysmal Titan pickup truck franchise. The ex-military man with close-cropped hair believes Nissanâs long-used âShiftâ slogan still has some life in it.
And Poore recognizes his dire need to lift the Infiniti luxury brand out of the relative doldrums in which it has dwelled since Nissan launched it for the 1990 model year. The biggest saving grace for Infinitiâs overall performance is that Acura, Hondaâs older luxury division, is doing relatively worse than Infiniti.
âInfiniti has high awareness, but we need to get it up even more,â Poore said in an interview during the Detroit auto show press days. âItâs still a fairly new brand and has been through different stages. The product wasnât always where it needed to be, but it is now.â With new entries such as the EX35 luxury crossover, he said, âweâll focus on the products but also on building up to an Infiniti âtrustmark.â Weâve got a story about technology, innovation, safety and design that didnât exist before.â
Caught in Between at Ford
Poore arrived at Nissan in October to succeed Jan Thompson, one of the industryâs top female marketing executives, who resigned under pressure in part because new-product launches had underachieved in terms of sales and because Nissan North America underwent a management transition.
Meantime, Poore was group marketing manger for Fordâs Lincoln-Mercury division after a stint as Ford truck-group marketing manager. But he was looking for an exit from Ford after its top marketing executive, Cisco Codina, was nudged out. Ford subsequently hired Jim Farley from Toyota to provide some fresh blood and outside ideas for the spot.
But itâs not as if Thompson left the cupboard bare for Poore. She is credited with moving Nissan and Infiniti into new marketing venues online; progress in event and experiential marketing; and for what turned out to be the coup of signing the Nissan Rogue as the exclusive sponsor of NBCâs hit serial drama Heroes.
More important, Nissan North America closed 2007 with an overall sales increase of 4.5 percent over 2006, the highest percentage increase of the Big 6 players in the U.S. market. That performance narrowed Nissanâs gap with American Honda to less than a half-million units in annual sales. It was powered by blistering gains by Altima and Versa, two fresh vehicles at the heart of Nissanâs U.S. lineup.
Poore likes what is now a strong Nissan presence in the two most robust segments of the market: small cars and luxury crossovers. âBefore, we werenât established as well as we could have been, not even last year,â he said. âBut now, weâre well-positioned.â
Altima joined Camry as the highest-volume mainstream sedans and became the second member of the 1-2 target for industry upstarts such as the new Chevrolet Malibu. Versa sales grew a whopping 260 percent last year as the carâs roominess and relatively high roof, and its continuously variable transmission, helped distinguish it from others in the small-car pack.
âIt zoomed three or four months after the launch and hasnât stopped,â Poore said. âClassically, if you wanted that kind of interior room, you had to make a trade-off.â (Meanwhile, however, sales of Sentra, Nissanâs longtime small-car stalwart, have stalled.)
Rogue prospered in the heart of the hot crossover category, and this yearâs new version of Murano -- highlighted February 3 during Nissanâs first in-game Super Bowl advertisement in 10 years -- will enhance Nissanâs presence in that growth segment. âOur ad (emphasizes) Muranoâs leadership and the fact that it created this segment,â Poore said.
A New Flagship
As Nissanâs new flagship, the GT-R also will help the brand -- more than most outsiders anticipate, Poore said. âWhenever you have a product that completely changes a market, you win,â he said. âFor us, thatâs GT-R. The supercar in America, until now, has only been for the professionals. GT-R is just the opposite of that -- for anyone, any time, any place. Itâs completely forgiving and will work with you to make you a âprofessionalâ driver.
âYou can drive it on the snow; you can paddle shift. But if you want, you can go to automatic (transmission). At the value for the money, itâs the best value in the market.â Already, he said, about 100,000 potential buyers in the U.S. âhave raised their handsâ to have a crack at the GT-R when it hits the market in July.
Poore isnât saying specifically how Nissan will advertise GT-R in the U.S., but he does insist the brandâs seemingly hoary and forever mundane âShiftâ ad positioning still has some mileage remaining. âI see no reason to change it,â he said. âWhat it still says is that everything we do, we change and make it better.â Case in point, he said: Altima, where âShiftâ has nicely supported the transformation of the model represented by the new version.
Nevertheless, Poore conceded he not only has his work cut out for him in trying to energize the Infiniti brand but also in dealing with the mess in the full-size pickup market. Thatâs where the Nissan Titan just hasnât been able to get much traction against the likes of the Detroit Threeâs industry leaders. Already the Toyota Tundra, introduced just a year ago, has outstripped it. Meantime, incentives of thousands of dollars per vehicle are required just for table stakes.
Poore is hoping a new ad campaign focusing on testimonials by real Titan owners, shot on location, will lift the model. âWeâre going to let the owners emphasize the toughness of these trucks,â he said.
Poore bought his first car with money he earned working his parentsâ roadside vegetable stand in Maryland. Both his parents were teachers. The University of Delaware undergraduate also has an MBA from Duke University. And he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Persian Gulf War.
Military experience helped prepare him for foreign exposure as an automotive executive for much of his 13 years at Ford. That included a stint running marketing in Colombia and Venezuela, âwhere they hand you a flak vest when you come in.â
Poore said he admires marketers who are game-changers, including Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. Apple and Nissan share one marketing agency, Chiat Day, Poore said, âso maybe some of the creativity that (Jobs) brings to the agency, the agency can apply for us as well.â
Brand-wise, Poore really likes what UPS has done to transform the package-shipping business into âwhat can brown do for youâ as a turnkey logistics provider. âThey took an essentially commoditized product and completely changed what it was, positioning it where they have sustainable growth beyond just package delivery.â
Nissan probably couldn't go beyond the car business even if it wanted to. But Poore still believes his new company can be a game-changer.