Jed Connelly and Jan Thompson, Nissan

The more successful a tagline becomes, the more it takes on shades of new meaning. In 1998, Apple urged computer users to “Think Different,” but it was Apple who later learned to heed its oxen advice. In 2003, Burger King brought back its iconic 1970s refrain “Have It Your Way” to show it could market itself in more creative ways than simply offering customers a choice of pickles or bun.

While Nissan has achieved tremendous success operating under its “Shift_” campaign, the tagline has not yet risen to a higher level of consumer consciousness. Launched in 2002, its DIY “Shift_” ads allowed Nissan to fill in the blank with words such as “perception” or “expectations,” and to cajole consumers to “shift” their views on what they wanted not only from their cars, but also their lives.

The campaign supported a product renaissance led by CEO Carlos Ghosn. From the well-muscled Altima sedan to the upstart Titan pickup and a raft of rugged SUVs, the Japanese automaker shed its status as an also-ran to Toyota to carve out a distinctive brand of its own: athletic, stylish, performance-oriented. Now, however, Nissan must confront its own lofty ideal. Will it abandon its messaging and “shift” strategy to keep pace in the fickle and overheated auto market?

So far, the answer is no. In the last 12 months, Nissan marketers have kept a steady hand on the wheel as the company racked up higher sales and market share, embracing the “Shift_” campaign and expanding the core strategy while elevating sister brand Infiniti to a higher luxury position.

Nissan’s mantra? Shift, but don’t change course.

“They have kept the message extremely simple with ‘Shift_’, [expanding] it into every new model launch,” said Todd Turner, an analyst with Car Concepts, Thousand Oaks, Calif. “That has been very successful in building the brand.”

As it continues to maneuver through its turnaround–Nissan’s sales hit the 1 million vehicle milestone in the U.S. during the last fiscal year–credit for such deft handling of the corners goes to our Marketers of the Year: Nissan veteran Jed Connelly, svp-sales and marketing, and Jan Thompson, vp-marketing.

Connelly, 60, has seen Nissan through its darkest days, including its escape from bankruptcy in 2002. He joined the company in 1989 as a direct marketing manager at Infiniti, and returned in the late ’90s after a stint working with Mitsubishi.

Despite Nissan’s newfound success, Connelly continues to strive for a higher gear. “The balance between success and failure is very fine,” he warned. “If you don’t wake up every day thinking that you’re behind, you have a tendency to get complacent.”

There’s no evidence of complacency so far. Since 2002, Nissan has executed a series of stellar product launches that boosted sales 40% through the period, while its overall market share continued to climb. Although it ranks third among the “Big Three” Japanese car makers in terms of U.S. market share, Nissan is on the move. It grew its share from 5.7% to 6.3% through August, per Ward’s Automotive Report, and is steadily gaining on Honda. Toyota leads that group with a 13% U.S. share, per Ward’s, followed by Honda at 8.4%.

In 2005, despite rising fuel prices and aggressive employee discounts from rivals in Detroit, Nissan managed to post a hefty 14.8% increase in overall vehicle sales through August, the biggest gain of any automaker in the U.S. market.

A key juncture came in June 2004, when Connelly hired Thompson to replace vp-marketing Steve Wilhite, the former VW wunderkind and now Nissan’s global marketing director at its Tokyo headquarters. Thompson, 55, is a golf industry veteran who previously headed up Nissan’s direct marketing agency, The Designory, Los Angeles. “She knew where we were and she looked in from the outside, so she could be a lot more objective,” said Connelly.

Wilhite, meanwhile, lauds Connelly for championing his efforts during his own two-and a-half-year tenure in the vp post.

“He’s really focused on making sure there’s strategic alignment and good collaboration in the organization,” said Wilhite. “Although he didn’t drive the adoption of ‘Shift_’ or its actual execution, he provided the forum and the environment for us to do the work. He got the support we needed from employees and from the people in Japan.”

As for his successor, Wilhite said Thompson’s experience outside the industry helps her avoid the “myopia” that often plagues lifelong auto execs. Thompson began her career in 1979 as one of the first women to join Chrysler’s management training program, and later rose to national marketing director for Lexus. In the ’90s, she spent five years overseeing interactive programs at Callaway Golf. “She has a much broader grasp of brand building,” said Wilhite.

In one of her early strategic moves last fall, Thompson unveiled Nissan’s first multiple-vehicle “family” ad push. The 2005 Pathfinder, Xterra and new full-sized Armada SUV were grouped together under the “Shift_” banner with the extended tagline, “A shift has been made.” Similarly, the Frontier mid-size pickup was placed into ads with the full-size Titan, arguably creating a strong halo around the younger brand.

“The campaign told people that if they hadn’t thought of Nissan as a full-line automaker, we’ve expanded our portfolio,” said Fred Suckow, director of marketing at Nissan division, Gardena, Calif.

Supplemental campaigns included TV/print ads for Pathfinder that wrapped an active lifestyle theme around the concept of “Tell better stories.” A Web site prompted consumers to share their stories relating to driving the vehicle, and garnered 70,000 entries, according to Suckow. “The underlying principle was self-expression and adventure,” he said.

The Xterra campaign, meanwhile, targeted an active lifestyle demographic with teaser ads showing surfboards, ski poles and bicycle chains crossed to form an “X.” The ads directed consumers to www.newX.com, where they could enter the Xterra Schooled sweepstakes with prizes such as trips to a kayak, surfing or snowboarding school. Nissan didn’t just pepper the Web with banners. More typical were efforts targeted at enthusiasts, such as sponsoring real-time footage of surf conditions at popular spots on the site surfline.com

Its efforts in the truck/SUV category are paying off. Nissan/Infinity truck sales were up 55% last year, despite rising gas prices and aggressive competition from Toyota and Honda. The online efforts were typical of automakers’ recent push away from traditional media, though Nissan hasn’t exactly weaned itself from the medium yet: Its $4.8 million online spending figure, per TNS Media Intelligence, was a small fraction of its total $910 million outlay in 2004, a 15% increase over the previous year, per TNS.

Thompson sees the Internet as a gold mine for reserarch and demonstrating return on investment. “We know today–and we didn’t know this three years ago–that for every dollar we spend in paid search, we get a $36 return on investment,” said Thompson. “If any particular key word or site isn’t working, we can change it immediately … Who’s going to argue with that? Finance loves it. Purchasing loves it. It’s all measurable.”

the centerpiece of Nissan’s marketing in 2005 revolved around the February launch of the redesigned Infiniti M sedan, a $40,000-plus nameplate that aims to compete in the luxury sector with the likes of Mercedes and BMW.

It’s gotten off to an excellent start. Nissan sold nearly 15,000 of the vehicles through August–a mere 2,090 units were delivered last year–putting the company within reach of its year-end goal of 25,900. That would place it well behind No. 1 BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class, but ahead of Lexus GS, Audi A6 and Cadillac STS.

The M35/45 is one of the final pieces in Infiniti’s overhaul of its vehicle portfolio, which also includes the successful FX SUV and G35 sports coupe. Connelly, who like former Callaway exec Thompson, sees life in golf, observed, “It’s like what they said about Phil Mickelson: You win one major, you’re in the record books; when you win two, you’re in the history books. Once you develop three successive model launches that all compete very well in [the] tier-one luxury segment, you’re no longer a newcomer. You’ve started to establish yourself as a solid player.”

Nissan broke new ground on M in terms of both its design and marketing. Execs at TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., which had created the “Shift_” mantra, dispensed with the usual templates for touting luxe cars–villas, rain-slicked roads, smiling 30-somethings driving to the yacht slip–and looked outside the realm of cars for inspiration.

“Luxury brands operate differently; luxury doesn’t mean add some leather, some auto lipstick and we’ll charge more,” said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at the agency. “Everyone knows an Infiniti car can go fast. Our approach was, ‘Let’s treat the car like a Cartier watch.'”

The car’s designers looked to musical instruments for their cues. Ultimately, a piano console inspired the car’s beveled dash, and a violin led to the interplay of steel and wood in the car’s interior.

At the time of Thompson’s arrival, the agency was finishing a study of luxury iconography, whose guideposts would help market the new M to consumers in the 40-50 age bracket with incomes above $175,000. Thompson, however, was quick to send the agency back to the drawing board upon seeing the first effort.

The campaign the agency offered a theme of “harmony” that, Schwartz admitted, was too close to Lexus’ positioning via “Art of Perfection.” When Thompson “blew it up,” as Schwartz put it, she forced the agency to go back to what they had learned about luxury.

“We weren’t happy with it, so we sent everyone back down to our design studio [Nissan Design America, La Jolla, Calif.],” said Thompson. “The vehicle exuded vibrant design, and when we found out that Infiniti [designers had begun with] a gesture for each vehicle, we were enraptured with that.”

The agency returned to the source of that “gesture”–Japanese shodo, or brush-stroke calligraphy–and unveiled a series of short TV launch ads for M, shot using amber rays of light to reflect the designers’ use of simple lines. Opalescent light outlining the vehicle, speakers, instrument cluster or the dashboard became the “glue” for the campaign, said M model manager James Detrude. “It opened up all sorts of possibilities,” he said.

Ad inserts ran the following months in Car and Driver, Forbes, Fortune and Wine Spectator, with a wall-of-words approach that echoed a former effort on Altima. Sample: “Take everything you know about design and nudge it. Push it. Simplify it. Modernize it. Liberate it.” Guerrilla stunts followed with light projections with on buildings in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

“Since we launched the ads, we are [at an] in all-time high for purchase intent for the Infiniti brand,” said Thompson.

Infiniti expanded the M’s shodo theme in a brand campaign that bowed last month. TV spots featured an artist who mixes red paint from powder and uses a large brush to “perform” a single meditative stroke in profiling a car. The stroke is hoisted on a white canvas as silks fall around an Infiniti. In one ad for the G35 sedan, the car is shown sliding through a veil of water as the voiceover intones, “Behold, the shape of performance.”

While Thompson implemented the campaign strategy, Connelly kept a steady hand on the tiller, said others within the Nissan distribution chain. Dealers, for one, said Connelly manages without being heavy handed and aims to build strong team spirit.

Charlie Hicks, a Nissan dealer in Corpus Christi, Texas, lauds Connelly as a bridge between dealers and company honchos. “Of all the executives of different brands I’ve dealt with, Jed has been the steadiest dealer advocate I’ve known,” said Hicks. “He doesn’t force factory issues on dealers; he presents them in a way that you feel there’s compromise.”

In 2004, when Nissan was prepping Titan as its first full sized pickup, there was a problem: Dealerships and service areas weren’t built to handle it. Connelly recognized that this was an opportunity to go further than just Titan readiness programs by upgrading facilities and signage that hadn’t been revamped in 20 years.

“We had the oldest dealerships in the country,” said Connelly, who folded the operational readiness program into a dealership upgrade called “N Ready.” Nissan is currently midway through the upgrade, with a quarter of its 1,050 dealerships completing the project.

“I don’t think I could overstate how much of an impact Jed has had at Nissan,” said Wilhite. “He has been the primary disciple of Ghosn’s belief in transparency and having a global view.”

And in knowing whether to shift, or stay on track.

Photography by Tom Alleman