For car manufacturers the next launch is always the most important. Last year the Cavalier replacement, Vectra, represented a huge gamble for Vauxhall. In February Peugeot embarked upon the largest advertising campaign in its history to bring the world the 406. And now Nissan is relaunching its Primera as a rival to both cars with a 9m advertising spend between now and Christmas. The campaign breaks on Monday, the eve of the all-important Birmingham International Motor Show.
For Nissan, as for the others, this really is the most important launch in its history in the UK. When the Primera was originally launched in the UK in 1990 it was given little marketing support – a 3m ad budget but no television advertising for the first year – unprecedented in the launch-obsessed car industry. Its problems were compounded by being launched into an over supplied car market on the brink of recession.
Nissan GB wrestled control of the marque in this country from Octav Botnar, the chairman of Nissan UK who has spent the past five years in tax exile in Switzerland. But that came too late to save the Primera.
So the relaunch of the all-new car is seen within the company as the chance to correct a lot of the damage which was done through neglect. Nissan estimates that it has lost 35,000 possible Primera sales in the past six years – roughly 18 months of sales at present levels. No manufacturer in a market where it has become progressively more expensive to sell cars can afford to give rivals that sort of advantage.
“We can’t underestimate the importance of the new Primera to the whole company,” says Nissan marketing director Brian Carolin. “It is the brand flagship – the ambassador for the values of the brand. Crucially it is also a volume seller – Nissan needs to sell 27,000 Primeras to be in the top six in this sector – and it is also central to profitability, especially being built in Sunderland.”
But it is now also a more crowded sector than it was in 1990 with Ford’s Mondeo, the Citroë Xantia, Rover 600 and Renault Laguna all also vying for the company car buyer. More than 80 per cent of Nissan Primera sales will come from the fleet market – among the most discerning car buyers in Europe – and the saviour of the UK market as retail sales collapsed during the recession.
Retail sales have proved resistant even to the annual 500m manufacturers are currently spending on advertising. A poor August followed by a 1.4 per cent fall in car sales in September has adjusted sales forecasts for the year downwards from the 2 million anticipated at the start of the summer. That is the environment into which the Primera will be launched.
Significantly the newest cars in the sector, the Vectra and Peugeot 406, which both launched in blazes of advertising glory have yet to set the market alight. Vectra is only selling slightly more than the Cavalier, the car it replaced, when it was being phased out. Sales of the Peugeot 406 are steady but will probably not satisfy the French owners which have invested so much in its development.
Nissan commissioned an independent study from Research International into the attitudes of drivers to rival cars and especially advertising in this sector. Much of the advertising was criticised as “gratuitous high effect/image advertising”.
Specific high-profile ads came in for criticism, with one respondent believing the Peugeot 406 ad was a music video for the band M-People and another respondent saying of © the “millennium” ads for the Vauxhall Vectra: “If this is the future, then the future’s nothing special.” In contrast the Renault Laguna was commended for its “Everything has worked out beautifully” campaign.
Nissan claims to have taken this on board in its campaign which it claims is turning its back on the high impact, glossy ads of its rivals to “go back to basics”, according to Carolin who was brought back from Nissan Europe in January to oversee the revamped Primera launch.
“The brief to the agency was to present the car in a stylish manner as the driver’s car. We have to develop the Primera as a brand and explain what it is – that has never been done properly before. By the time Nissan GB took control of the car in 1992 it was already too late.
“If you don’t establish an impact in the first 18 months then you will always have a struggle – the sector moves on with new competitors all the time and there is a danger of getting lost in the clutter. Our presence in the sector has been too low, we have a latent opportunity, but we need to create a distinctive positioning for the car to make the most of the opportunity.”
The TV campaign features Mr and Mrs Jones – young, modern, home workers. But because Mr Jones loves his Primera so much, and it is such a good drive, he takes it out for a spin as if he were driving to work even when he doesn’t need to. Environmental concerns about unnecessary travel aside it is a clever hum- orous ad but has the drawback of making its characters rather stilted.
It has all the prerequisite glamour shots of the car as required by dealers and street and skyline shots that would not look out of place in EURO RSCG Wnek Gosper’s Peugeot 406 ad. Music from the Lighthouse Family is something else that has been learnt from the 406 ad.
But it is difficult to believe that the ad in itself will be any more successful than others at making ground in this sector. To hit its 27,000 annual target sales must increase by almost 30 per cent.
Nissan and agency TBWA are planning the next stage of the campaign in what is seen as a four-year programme for the new car, which will include below-the-line work. Carolin is confident that Nissan has got it right.
“People are tiring of the big impacts – they are too ad literate to be conned by that approach. My position will be judged on whether we sell more than 27,000 Primeras. I am not in this to win awards.”
The last person to use the phrase “back to basics” was John Major. Carolin is more confident than the Prime Minister of still having his job this time next year.