Leaf power: How a ‘hero product’ drives Nissan’s reputation

In the 2013 Best Global Green Brands ranking, just released, Nissan claimed the title as the most-improved company, jumping 16 places to rank No. 5 overall. Not bad, considering that before 2012, it didn’t even make the list. The rankings look at the alignment, or lack thereof, of the public’s perception of 50 global brands’ environmental performance compared to those same brands’ actual environmental performance.

Nissan’s move into the fast lane coincided with the market uptake of its electric vehicle, the Leaf, introduced in the U.S. in late 2010, and in Europe and Canada in 2011.

All of which begs the question: Is Nissan’s high ranking as a brand the result of a single product? And, if so, is that risky?

I posed the question recently to two Nissan executives: Roel de Vries; corporate vice president and global head of marketing, communication and brand strategy; and Billy Hayes, vice president, global sales.

de Vries quickly dispelled the notion that Nissan is a one-trick pony. “I think what we are starting to see is a recognition by consumers and the market of the ongoing investment we are making, especially in the Leaf,” he told me. “But not only the Leaf. Like many car companies, we're investing quite a bit in getting our cars cleaner and getting our whole supply chain more green.”

The Leaf’s high standing — and its halo effect on Nissan — makes for an interesting case study of the relationship between companies and brands, and the risks and opportunities for companies that have a breakout green product. Having tracked green marketing for nearly 25 years, I’ve been leery of companies whose image relies on a single product or initiative, especially if it represents a relative small part of its revenue. In Nissan’s case, the 30,445 Leafs it sold worldwide in fiscal 2012 represent well under 1 percent of the 4.9 million vehicles it sold overall during that period. Still, that’s considered a success for a completely new car model boasting a completely new type of engine and fueling system.

So, how did Nissan get there?

“What we've done over the last couple of years is to bring a real product to real people at a real price,” said de Vries. “There's a lot of activity going on everywhere, but a big part of it in our industry plays in the world of PR. They are products that are not very accessible to people or that are not on the road for people to see. What we have done different to others, I think, is that we have developed a car that's real, that's accessible, and it's being recognized everywhere. Our volumes are really starting to pick up nicely now but before even the volume pick-up, we've had a lot of recognition in the mass media, whether it is the Car of the Year awards, or great write-ups in newspapers or motoring magazines. What's working for us is to do something that's very close to real use for real people.”

Next page: Going for the green