Nissan Motorsports president Shoichi Miyatani talks to Michael Barnett about electric racing cars and how the company’s participation in the FIA GT1 championship is benefiting the brand’s marketing department.
Marketing Week (MW): How do the activities of Nissan Motorsports (Nismo) in racing contribute to the overall Nissan brand?
Shoichi Miyatani (SM): Motorsport has to contribute to Nissan’s brand in terms of providing excitement, aspiration and innovation. How to then exploit it is up to the Nissan marketing group and Nismo.
But in order for us to realise the contribution to the brand, first we have to understand what kind of racing we should take part in. It has to be viewed from two different angles. First is whether winning the race itself is going to give marketing leverage or not. Unless the race is in a world-class championship, it does not give so much credibility to the brand.
The second aspect is whether winning the race is meaningful from a technological point of view. Winning the race against other car brands proves the technological advancement and credibility of the vehicles. To see value from a race, those are the two aspects we always have to keep in mind.
Also, the race itself gives you excitement and a passion for driving, even if you do not always beat your competitors. That is another contribution to the brand.
MW: You compete in the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) GT1 championship. How did you decide which racing division to compete in?
SM: In the past, we participated in races in Japan and tried to win the Le Mans 24-hour race. Now, our total motorsport activities budget is not as big. So we asked ourselves which race series would give us the best return on investment. That is why we chose GT1 the return on investment and the marketing benefit.
In the future, we want the GT1 World Championship to become a “real” world championship.
Although it is titled as a world championship, public recognition is not yet established. One of the reasons is the limited number of brands competing Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Nissan, Corvette and Ford. If more brands were competing, then the value of the series could be enhanced, which would lead to more spectators and more TV coverage.
Nissan is not trying to convince other car manufacturers to take part, but we are discussing it with the race series promoters. Already the organiser and the FIA are thinking about moving in that direction.
MW: How do you use the features of your racing cars to market Nissan’s road cars?
SM: Facts and perceptions are sometimes different, but in the end people’s perceptions come first. We have to balance fact and perception. For example, the fact is that car technology is very advanced, but people’s recognition of it lags behind.
We want the race car and the road car to have a link not only the appearance of the car and the product line-up, but also the engine connection.
We at Nissan do not have an F1 engine, but some Renault cars have a Renault F1 engine [as the two companies have a commercial alliance]. From 2014, the F1 engine is going to be a 1.6 litre turbo. We have a normal 1.6 litre turbo engine and if we could develop some kind of commonality with an F1 car, that would give credibility to the Nissan brand. In the future, I am envisaging some link will be established.
MW: How are you raising awareness of the Nismo brand off the race track?
SM: We are selling a Nismo version of the Nissan 370Z in the US. That vehicle is developed with the knowledge passed on from motorsport. The 370Z is a sports car, with the technology and the results gained from motorsport in aerodynamics, downforce capability and engine tuning now filtered into the road car. In this way, we want to use the Nismo version in normal Nissan product line-ups.
Of course, other Nissan models could also be easily associated with motorsport, so we need to consider which ones are suitable. Nissan has done this before, but not really fully exploited it.
Geographically speaking, Nismo has varying impact. In Japan, the name of Nismo is well known, in the US it is so-so and in the UK Nismo is probably relatively well known compared with other European countries. In the Middle East, there are a lot of motorsport fans and there is a good opportunity for us in that market.
MW: How are you adapting your marketing to target developing markets?
SM: The growth opportunities for Nissan, geographically speaking, are the emerging markets. From a branding point of view, there is still the opportunity to improve the perception of Nissan’s brand to be more innovative and more exciting. Nismo can be used both for that and for the geographical expansion.
As sales of cars go down in more mature countries, our focus should shift to some extent to markets other than Japan. We are now considering what to do in China and Brazil and how motorsport can contribute.
The market size in China is now bigger than the US and as motorisation goes up, people want to have more exciting cars, even though they cannot afford to buy them yet. People want to see the potential of the cars, which is what happened previously in Japan and in Europe.
MW: What other innovations are determining Nismo’s marketing strategy?
SM: Another new element is our zero-emissions cars. We have developed a Nissan Leaf race car based on the normal production model. We used the same engine and battery as the normal production Leaf, but the bodywork is made from carbon fibre to make it very light. Compared with the normal Leaf’s 1.6 tonnes, this car is about 900kg, so that conserves the battery. It runs very fast.
We are trying to use this car to show a hint of the future of motorsport. Electric vehicle racing can be done in central metropolitan areas and even indoors because there are no emissions and no sound.
When we talk about motorsport and the noisy fiveand six-litre cars that is fun. But it is not so appealing to the eco-friendly non-smoker. You might say the GT1 race is a smokers’ race; the electric vehicle race is for non-smokers.
We want to show that the electric vehicle is not dull and there is the potential for the electric vehicle to be a really fun car to drive. That is the appeal we want.
We also know that the FIA is also thinking about taking an eco-friendly direction and these electric vehicles could be part of the race portfolio in the FIA’s future.
Nismo – the real story
Nismo, Nissan’s motorsport business, has the task of maintaining consumers’ perception that the main car brand employs cutting-edge technology. It needs to win its FIA GT1 races to show off its cars’ capabilities and make links in customer minds between the racing cars and the road vehicles.
Nismo aims to elevate the GT1 race class to a recognisable world championship in the public’s perception so it can benefit from more exposure. It is also seeking to push forward the development of new race classes featuring low-emissions cars, such as its Leaf model.
Nissan’s biggest growth opportunities are in emerging markets, particularly China and Brazil. Nismo president Shoichi Miyatani, also vice-president of Nissan for Latin America, says motorsport will be instrumental in showing those markets what Nissan cars are capable of at the top of the range, even if they are still beyond the financial reach of most consumers.
Nismo real-time reader responses
What form of marketing do you feel has the largest return on investment in today’s environment?
SM: There is no single form of marketing which acts as the perfect solution by itself. It is very important for us to develop a strategy by category, to define who the target audiences are and what kind of marketing tools are appropriate in each case.
Online and social media communications are rapidly growing and reasonably cost-effective, but they can only cover a certain group of customers. To reach the remaining groups, motorsport events at dealerships and marketing through non-automotive media might be effective solutions.
Has Nissan ever considered moving into Formula 1 or World Rally in any capacity?
SM: Regarding F1, Renault has been representing the Renault-Nissan alliance group for many years, while Nissan’s luxury arm, Infiniti, entered into a marketing partnership with Red Bull Racing this season. Therefore, I do not see any reason for Nissan to move into the series at present.
It is very important for us to use motorsport to promote and enhance awareness of our technologies and products. In that sense, the World Rally Championship does look like a potential fit, but as Nissan is currently very busy in the GT1 World Championship, I would not want to split our resources right now. If we are talking about the future, however, I would say that anything is possible.
Are you able to measure what impact motorsport has on the perception of the overall Nissan brand?
SM: I strongly believe that the motorsport programmes do have a significant impact on our brand, but we do not have a proven method to measure the level of this impact. Conventional measures such as race attendance, the television audience, the “advertising value equivalency” of any generated media coverage and sales of branded merchandise are all referred to whenever we argue the benefit of motorsport. We also have a figure of market share in Japan that was generated by our participation in the domestic Super GT programme.
However, the elements that can be quantified only represent a small part of motorsport’s overall impact because things such as the emotion, passion, motivation and excitement people feel when watching races are intangible. This is why we are racing.