Originally created 10/12/03

Nissan ready for assault on Detroit's truck dominance



CANTON, Miss. -- When Diane Allen and her team at Nissan Design America were told to create Nissan's first full-size truck, their marching orders were to "do it big, do it authentic and make it look different."

But their creation - the hulking Nissan Titan - won't be marketed with a three-word tagline to rival "Built Ford Tough" or Chevy's "Like a Rock."

Make no mistake, however, at whose bumpers the Titan will aim for when it rumbles off Nissan's new Mississippi plant Oct. 21. Nissan officials say the Titan was designed to get Ford, GM and Dodge big-truck loyalists to at least take the Nissan challenger for a spin.

Nissan will launch an in-your-face television ad blitz Oct. 20 with four 15-second spots featuring full-screen white letters on a black background shouting hefty towing, horsepower and torque statistics. Viewers may have a hard time figuring out what the Titan looks like - it will be shown spattered with dirt and surrounded by flying mud.

Initially playing down the appearance of the Titan - later 30-second spots will give a better view - is deliberate. The strategy is an acknowledgment by Nissan that if it wants to play high-stakes poker with Detroit's big boys, it has to gain credibility.

"We want to prove we can be at the poker game, so you gotta show you've got the goods," said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director of the Nissan agency that created the Titan's ad campaign.

The truck debuts just after Nissan's revived Quest minivan and first full-size SUV at the same Canton plant that will build the Titan. It is the final stage in the Japanese company's attempt to be perceived as a full-line auto maker. It's also the vehicle that will most directly draw the ire and retaliation of The Big Three, whose dominance of the 2.3 million, full-size truck market is their bread and butter.

"The Titan is taking on an aura of more importance because it's the first time we've taken on the dominance of the Big Three in a huge market," said Emil Hassan, senior vice president of manufacturing, purchasing, quality and logistics for Nissan North America Inc.

Industry analysts say the Titan's massive proportions - 9,500 pounds of towing capacity and 5.6-liter V-8 - and sleek design will let Nissan meet its first-year sales target of 100,000.

But analysts differ over where those buyers will come from. Even Nissan officials are hedging their bets.

The Titan - which offers a king- and crew- cab version but no regular cab or stripped-down V-6 model - will more easily attract buyers who get a truck for its appearance, rather than out of need, automotive marketing consultant Art Spinella said.

Spinella says the Titan will have less luck with contractors, farmers and ranchers and RV enthusiasts loyal to the Ford F-Series, Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram. The Titan doesn't have the super heavy duty line or diesel engine that some buyers demand, he said.

"I don't think they understand the full-size truck market yet," said Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore.

Nissan product specialist Larry Dominique estimates 30 percent to 40 percent of Titan buyers will be Nissan loyalists and as much as 20 percent of sales might be stolen from the Toyota Tundra. But he says Nissan must attract domestic truck fans.

"Easily 30 percent to 40 percent of sales will have to come from domestic purchases," Dominique said.

But Ray Vrscak, president of Nissan's National Dealer Advisory Board, says dealers will have an easier time going after Toyota Tundra sales. "I don't think we'll go head to head with Ford and Chevy initially," Vrscak said. "It's too expensive to chase those guys."

Nissan has sent production test models of the Titan out to dealers for show-and-tell nights with prospective customers. Spinella predicts the Titan will ignite a fierce battle at the local dealer level.

"Wherever a Nissan store puts on a "Come and take a look at Titan" promotion, you will see Ford and Chevy sales and more advertising in local markets to drown out Nissan," Spinella said.

Ford Motor Co. is breaking sales records with its redesigned F-150 - the most popular U.S. vehicle for more than two decades - and with hefty discounts on its 2003 model. General Motors Corp. is offering huge incentives on its refurbished Silverado. And the Toyota Tundra, maligned because it was too small, is debuting a bigger, four-door Tundra truck.

Industry analyst George Peterson said the domestics will be busy aiming their market assault at each other, and that may create a market opportunity for the Titan. "And I think if they can get the hard core truck guy into the dealership, they (Nissan) will have a fair chance," said Peterson, president of AutoPacific, an automotive marketing and product consulting firm in Tustin, Calif.

Nissan is still conducting pricing clinics, and won't announce Titan's pricing until mid-November. "We're starting to analyze data from pricing clinics, but that target could move," said Jed Connelley, Nissan's senior vice president of U.S. sales and marketing.