Surekha Ragavan
Nov 5, 2020

Nissan’s marketing head on consumer targeting and revising the agency model

Asia VP of marketing Nirmal Nair weighs in on ‘collapsing’ agency silos and why the brand is spending 20% of its media budget on those not looking for cars.

A still from Nissan's first brand-led video in Asia (see the video below)
A still from Nissan's first brand-led video in Asia (see the video below)

Three years ago, Nissan turned the agency model on its head by ‘collapsing’ media and creative silos within its US$750 million marketing brief to longtime partner Omnicom. What resulted was a consolidation of marketing tiers that allowed the brand to more effectively focus on the end-to-end customer journey of each product model. This ‘new’ way of working with agencies—brought about by CMO Allyson Witherspoon—has sped up work and eradicated the need to liaise with multiple agencies.

For Nirmal Nair, VP of marketing for Nissan Asia and Oceania, this process has been considerably better. "We've changed from using two separate media and creative planners to one customer journey lead," he says. "Their role is to understand the journey that we’d like people to have, and use insights to inform that."

The brand wants to ensure that it’s much more focused on consumers than simply buying media or creating content for the sake of it, he adds.

Nirmal Nair


"It's not been easy for us because you're breaking down the status for planners. What would be two planners—one in the media agency, one in creative—is all coming to one side. It's been a lot of work, and a very big change from how we usually operate, but I think it's really showing results."

To ensure that content is relevant to each market, Nair says guidelines have to be devised based on local insights, and matched accordingly with codes, tones and mannerism set by global comms. "It has to be relevant to the context, otherwise you lose [the customer]," he says.

Covid-19 just a bump in the road

Covid-19 hasn’t impacted Nissan's marketing spend, according to Nair, as a large proportion of the brand’s budget had already moved to digital over the last two years. The only shift has been a reduction of spend on physical launches and showrooms—a huge part of any automotive brand’s calendar.

"Events have always taken centre stage in the auto industry, and not being able to convene has been hard," Nair says. "With that not happening, we needed to ensure that we could still communicate with prospective customers on new products that we were launching."

The challenge lies in keeping people engaged through virtual events. One success story that Nair cites is the launch of Kicks e-Power in Thailand, where the brand used Line as a platform to engage, Facebook to project the livestream, content moderators to take real-time questions from viewers, and KOLs to convert car jargon to consumer speak. 


Nair stresses that as a marketer, he is constantly thinking about the consumer journey through different platforms. The auto sector is made of a long supply chain including engineers, salespeople and dealerships, and all these handovers mean that a smooth journey for the consumer is vital. "If we can create that [journey] smoothly, irrespective of period or time, we can have a healthy brand," says Nair.

"You asked me before if I moved marketing spend due to Covid, and I said no because we’ve been very digitally focused already. And the key thing here is, we ensure that the customer experience is at the centre of everything. There’s no break in the journey because of some screw-up. And that’s been the biggest learning for me."

Behavioral marketing trumps demographic marketing

There is increasing evidence that values and purpose are defining purchase behaviours around the world, and Nair isn’t oblivious to that. And especially with car purchases, people tend to be influenced by emotions; they need to be able to connect with the people talking to them or be moved by the values of the product or brand.

So instead of targeting consumers by age or demographic, Nissan breaks its key audiences into three buckets:

  • In-market consumers: Those who might buy a car within the next three months
  • Near-market consumers: Those who have signaled a change in lifestyle such as expecting a child or looking for bigger apartments and might look into buying a car in the next six to 12 months
  • Future-market consumers: Those who consume automotive content but are not actively looking to buy a car anytime soon, but could signal potential changes within 12 to 24 months.

"The way we look at our consumers or prospects is that we move away from demographic targeting towards behavioural targeting, because that's what you need to connect to people," Nair says. "You could have a 20-year-old kid who’s a multi-millionaire, and you [might] totally skip them when you use demographic profiling and targeting."

Likewise, not everybody will resonate with a particular brand. "Globally, we have identified a brand audience, and we term them as adventurers who like [different things such as] tech, sports or the outdoors," he says. "And what I try to do is use those global definitions of Nissan values [and apply them] within an ASEAN or Oceania context."

Within the three behavioral buckets mentioned above, Nissan also observes a subset of geographically near, far, and in-market consumers, and the brand uses adtech to target potential customers that have interacted with its website or brand campaign.

"We go back to them on the same platform they visited us on, and we talk to them about where they left off," he says. "As I said, it's not about going into a specific demographic, but rather, looking at the interest they've shown, and going back to them with relevant content. And I'm somebody who believes in multimedia, so we’re focusing a lot more on video."

One way Nissan targets behaviours is tapping into its brand ethos of ‘advanced technology helping humanity’. This goes hand-in-hand with its electric-vehicle offerings, and what has now become a signature of the brand.

Nissan’s first brand-led video in Asia (above) was one way Nair had a chance to express the brand philosophy. "The thinking behind the campaign stems from an aspiration towards zero fatalities and zero emissions," he says. "That’s the message we wanted to convey. And so when people move to a stage where they are thinking about buying a car, we would have already spoken to them about our values."

Nair adds: "My ultimate objective as a marketer is to move the narrative from product to brand".

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