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.

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