Blessed Is Poore in Spirit, for He Shall Inherit -- Nissan’s Brands

By Michelle Krebs February 11, 2008

By Dale Buss Nissan_ben_poore_casual_226

Nissan didn’t 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 didn’t 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 company’s 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 Nissan_shift_logo_fixed_210   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 Nissan’s long-used “Shift” 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 Infiniti’s overall performance is that Acura, Honda’s older luxury division, is doing relatively worse than Infiniti.

“Infiniti has high awareness, but we need to get it up even more,” Poore said in an interview during the Detroit auto show press days. “It’s still a fairly new brand and has been through different stages. The product wasn’t always where 2008_infiniti_ex_258 it needed to be, but it is now.” With new entries such as the EX35 luxury crossover, he said, “we’ll focus on the products but also on building up to an Infiniti ‘trustmark.’ We’ve got a story about technology, innovation, safety and design that didn’t exist before.”

Caught in Between at Ford

Poore arrived at Nissan in October to succeed Jan Thompson, one of the industry’s 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 Ford’s 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 it’s 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 NBC’s 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 Nissan’s 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 Nissan’s 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. “Before, we weren’t established as well as we could have been, not even last year,” he said. “But now, we’re well-positioned.”

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 car’s roominess and relatively high roof, and its continuously variable transmission, helped distinguish it from others in the small-car pack.

“It zoomed three or four months after the launch and hasn’t stopped,” Poore said. “Classically, if you wanted that kind of interior room, you had to make a trade-off.” (Meanwhile, however, sales of Sentra, Nissan’s longtime small-car stalwart, have stalled.) Nissan_ad_5_262_2

Rogue prospered in the heart of the hot crossover category, and this year’s new version of Murano -- highlighted February 3 during Nissan’s first in-game Super Bowl advertisement in 10 years -- will enhance Nissan’s presence in that growth segment. “Our ad (emphasizes) Murano’s leadership and the fact that it created this segment,” Poore said.

A New Flagship

As Nissan’s new flagship, the GT-R also will help the brand -- more than most outsiders anticipate, Poore said. “Whenever you have a product that completely changes a market, you win,” he said. “For us, that’s 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. It’s completely forgiving and will work with you to make you a ‘professional’ driver. 2009_nissan_gtr_at_la_show_246

“You 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, it’s the best value in the market.” Already, he said, about 100,000 potential buyers in the U.S. “have raised their hands” to have a crack at the GT-R when it hits the market in July.

Poore isn’t saying specifically how Nissan will advertise GT-R in the U.S., but he does insist the brand’s seemingly hoary and forever mundane “Shift” ad positioning still has some mileage remaining. “I see no reason to change it,” he said. “What it still says is that everything we do, we change and make it better.” Case in point, he said: Altima, where “Shift” 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. That’s where the Nissan Titan just hasn’t been able to get much traction against the likes of the Detroit Three’s 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. “We’re going to let the owners emphasize the toughness of these trucks,” he said.

Favorite Game-changers

Poore bought his first car with money he earned working his parents’ 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, “where they hand you a flak vest when you come in.”

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, “so maybe some of the creativity that (Jobs) brings to the agency, the agency can apply for us as well.”

Brand-wise, Poore really likes what UPS has done to transform the package-shipping business into “what can brown do for you” as a turnkey logistics provider. “They took an essentially commoditized product and completely changed what it was, positioning it where they have sustainable growth beyond just package delivery.”

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.

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