PHOTOs: kathryn rapier photography inc.
When Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. started preparing for the 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, the automaker's marketing team knew it needed to shake up the way customers perceived the Nishi-ku, Japan-based company, whose origins stretch back more than a century. In recent years, consumer enthusiasm for the brand and Nissan products had stalled. One report from Consumer Reports National Research Center, in fact, concluded that when it came to considering a new car brand, 27.8 percent of potential buyers flirted with Toyota Motor Corp., while 21 percent contemplated Honda Motor Corp. Even though Toyota's and Honda's automotive designs were often viewed as antiquated, Nissan chugged far behind the two automotive giants, with just 9.9 percent of prospective buyers regarding the brand as one they'd potentially purchase in the future.
Certainly, there was nothing outdated about its current products, as evidenced by its plans for NAIAS. Besides showing its existing autos, such as the electric-power Leaf, Nissan intended to debut its Sport Sedan Concept, a car that would never actually be built but whose sculpted contours suggested the way the company will design upcoming products. This fusion of sports car and spaceship, Nissan hoped, would enthrall attendees as much as hoverboards, jetpacks, and other imagination-whetting visions of technological things to come. Normally, those impressive attractions alone would seem sufficient enough to drive attendees to the company's booth in numbers that more resemble mobs than crowds. But Nissan was also faced with the formidable prospect of nearly 47 vehicle introductions from direct competitors at NAIAS, with many of them poised on the bleeding edge of technology, such as the electric Fit EV and e-Golf wheeled out by Honda and Volkswagen AG, respectively.
Over the Top Three massive cantilevered rings formed a halo of crimson metal over the 17,000-square-foot exhibit.
Listen and Learn
Staffers directed guests to cylinders containing Nissan-branded earbuds.
Soothing music streamed into earbuds allowed attendees to drown out the auto show's din while visiting Nissan's booth.
The Great Wall
Like the fabled concept cars of years past at auto expos, the Innovation Wall was designed to spur attendees to associate the automaker with advanced technical prowess.
RFID in six interactive areas let attendees access and customize information on the Nissan models on display.
|Futurama The Sport Sedan Concept car offered visitors a tantalizing glimpse of future Nissan designs.
Visitors linked up to Nissan's Wi-Fi network through their smartphones, and surfed to a special microsite that kicked off the digital exhibit experience.
Meet the Machines
Visitors interacted with the exhibit's Innovation Wall simply by moving their hands.
Guests viewed informational videos about the cars, which displayed data such as engine size, interior options, and costs of ownership.
Nissan's challenges at NAIAS were complex, but its goals for the show were as simple and straightforward as a Model T. The previous year, visitors lingered an average of 10 minutes, and awarded the exhibit an approval rating of 85 percent. For 2014, Nissan wanted to increase dwell time by 50 percent, and better its approval rating by 10 percent. Of the dual goals, dwell time was an especially vital make-or-break metric, since the company felt it would need to hold visitors much longer to alter their perceptions of the brand. After all, the company had learned over time that winning the attention and favor of auto show attendees took more than shiny cars parked atop exhibit flooring. According to Joe Gallant, Nissan's manager of trade shows and exhibits, "Success at NAIAS means bringing great product, and bringing an irresistible way of presenting it."
Thus, with its competition stiff, its brand misunderstood, and its goals for the auto show ambitious, Nissan's marketing team needed to radically reset consumer perception of its products. Working with experience-marketing agencies George P. Johnson and Spinifex Group, Nissan concluded that to exhibit innovative automobiles, it should use equally ingenious technology. In this case, the company determined that smartphones should play a fundamental role in the booth experience. This decision was based on two key points: First, 64 percent of all American adults own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. Second, today's smartphones play a pivotal role in purchasing an automobile. For example, the "Automotive Buyer Influence Study," commissioned by the website AutoTrader.com, showed 39 percent of recent car buyers used a smartphone to shop and compare models, nearly double the metrics from 2013. To simulate the range and flexibility smartphones offer its audience, then, Nissan's experience would have to be dense with information, and engage and educate potential customers by giving them the tools to explore the company's products at their own pace.
Instead of technology for technology's sake, the Wi-Fi network and RFID readers made the experience more personal.
More than just mindlessly going digital for the sake of going digital, Nissan's marketing team knew the technology had to blend seamlessly within the physical architecture of its booth, to reflect a world whose wired connectivity customers accept as the norm. For Nissan to rely on items such as fliers, sales spiels, and video monitors running loops of product patter to convey information could seem as out of date to attendees as selling a vehicle without airbags. Teaming up with Stark RFID Inc., a Greenville, SC-based company that designs customized Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) software, Nissan mapped out an experience it dubbed the Digital Landscape. When attendees entered the Nissan booth, staffers would hand them a pair of branded earbuds for their phones, help them connect to Nissan's Wi-Fi network, and then direct them to any of several product zones where discreetly placed RFID readers would sense attendees' smartphones and initiate an interactive and customizable educational experience.
The Fast and the Curious
When NAIAS 2014 opened its doors in January, a record-setting 110,509 enthusiasts poured into Detroit's Cobo Center. Many swarmed to attractions such as Alfa Romeo Automobiles S.p.A.'s trio of vintage race cars that evoked its playboy image of years past, and Mercedes-AMG's self-driving concept vehicle with rotating front seats that summoned its stunning promise of years ahead. But the booth captured visitors' eyes with the arresting power of emergency flashers blinking furiously in the dark.
Looming over the company's 17,000-square-foot exhibit was a scarlet halo that rose almost 40 feet into the air. Comprising three independently cantilevering oval rings, the expansive ceiling element was made of lightweight aluminum, clad with curved Dibond, and finished with white tensioned-fabric sleeves. With a span exceeding 200 feet, the halo coincidentally mirrored the so-called "floating" roof of the Sport Sedan Concept on display.
Drawn by the carmine crown that could be seen across the expanse of the show floor, attendees streamed into the voluminous booth with the regularity of water from a burst hydrant. When they entered, they met 12 staffers in branded shirts, who directed them to any of three "totems" – 6-foot-high plastic cylinders loaded with hundreds of pairs of earbuds. Guests grabbed a pair of the earbuds, and then, coached by staffers (or simply tutored by instructions printed on the sides of the totems), they connected to a Nissan Wi-Fi network through their cellphones. Next, they surfed to a special microsite (nissanapp.com) via their phone's browser that would initiate their digital exhibit experience. Once installed, the microsite prompted visitors to enter a six-digit code located on the back of an RFID tag affixed to their earbuds' cord, and complete a registration process.
Once the visitors donned their earbuds, they could listen to a soothing techno beat streaming over the Nissan Wi-Fi network, while they kicked the proverbial tires on the Sport Sedan Concept resting upon a raised circular platform. After they finished scoping out the car of the future, guests could explore the remainder of the booth at their own pace through seven different RFID-enabled zones, six of which featured various Nissan models.
Cell on Wheels Instead of relaying product information through its staffers, Nissan conveyed it via visitors' smartphones.
Broadcast News Guests could receive the product data they desired by using Nissan's in-both Wi-Fi network to log onto a microsite.
The Wheel Deal Using their smartphones as controllers, guests competed for the fastest time on an animated race track.
When visitors stepped into a given zone, such as those that included the Leaf or Juke, two RFID readers, situated discreetly out of sight under cars or below adjacent decking, sensed the approaching attendees' cellphones. Triggered by guests' proximity, the readers broadcast a message to their phones, querying if they wanted to "join the zone" – meaning, would they like more info on the cars in that designated space. If they tapped "Yes," they were sent to a Web page for that specific model – the Pathfinder, for example – where they could view an informational video about the car, which displayed features such as its V-6 engine and aluminum-alloy wheels. By swiping a color wheel, guests could shift the color of an on-screen car to hues such as "cayenne red" or "carbon blue." Then, if guests answered the question, "What's your style?" with one of the four available answers (urban, sporty, punk, or practical), the background scenery transformed to one that fit their selection, such as soaring skyscrapers or a sedate sea. Guests could alter the featured car's background, or morph its interior colors and options, like a video game where you build a world according to your whims.
After absorbing an owner's manual worth of data at the six product stations, guests cruised over to the seventh interactive zone containing the Innovation Wall and the GT-R racing game, which offered more entertainment than education. Comprising a roughly 18-foot-long stretch of four seamless 55-inch LCD touchscreens, the Innovation Wall employed Kinect, the motion-sensing technology Microsoft Corp. developed for its Xbox consoles.
Evoking images of the movie "Minority Report," the Wall offered a variety of dazzling experiences, including the mesmerizing "Meet the Machines," which featured live-action footage of a Nissan GT-R LM Nismo race car, compiled by an array of 74 cameras filming at 1,000 frames per second. When attendees came within a few feet of the Innovation Wall, a message appeared on its four screens asking them to extend their hands.
The gesture activated a visual presentation that roared to life with a high-definition video of the Nismo bulleting through cream-thick fog on a track so wet and black it resembled a winding river of liquid tar. Using their hands in the same manner that an orchestra conductor uses his baton, guests manipulated the onscreen action, slowing down the zooming car to a glacial crawl, or speeding it up to a Flash-fast blur.
Increase dwell time by 50 percent compared to 2013 trade show results.
Improve attendees' approval rating of the booth by 10 percent.
Bettered the average dwell time by 80 percent.
Boosted its approval rating by 15 percent.
Positioned next to the Innovation Wall's four screens was a duo of 55-inch LCD screens running a video game also featuring the Nismo, whose brutal/brawny look was fittingly designed in part by a video-game maker. When RFID readers located there sensed approaching visitors, they sent messages inviting the guests to take the Nismo for a spin. Wielding their cellphones as de facto video-game controllers, 10 attendees at a time could live life in the virtual fast lane for a few minutes. Quicker than you can say "Gentlemen, start your engines," they raced around an animated course's serpentine track twice, vying to see who could achieve the best time. A leader board running along the right-hand side of the screen displayed the players with the fastest times. If any of the 1,400 people who got fast and furious in the game were also logged into Facebook, their pedal-to-the-metal scores could be automatically posted to their wall, thus extending Nissan's exposure.
Nissan's approach to NAIAS was as beautiful as a classic Rolls-Royce. As word of the Digital Landscape spread across the show floor, the booth became packed as tightly as a clown car. Of the approximately 500,000 guests who streamed into Nissan's exhibit over the course of the show, 2,000 visitors – nearly 20 percent more than expected – took part in the Digital Landscape experience. Most importantly, Nissan sped past its two main goals for the event: Guests clocked an average of 18 minutes' dwell time in the booth, a jump of nearly 80 percent from 2013, and their approval rating of the exhibit soared to an almost-perfect 98 percent, an increase in excess of 15 percent from the year before. Furthermore, heat maps generated by the RFID technology allowed the company to fine tune its exhibits at car shows around the globe, from Chicago to Shanghai. Not surprisingly, Sizzle Awards judges' approval levels matched those of attendees. "Instead of technology for technology's sake, the Wi-Fi network and RFID readers actually made the experience more personal," one judge said. Another noted that, "This brilliant concept allowed Nissan to reach far more people than if a staffer had to personally speak to every attendee in order to convey the company's key messages."
Numbers like that can only tell you what an accountant sees, and they can perhaps miss the bigger picture. Nissan's Digital Landscape triumphed because its mix of sorcerous technology and customized information offered auto show attendees, like the Beach Boys sang in "Still Cruisin'," their ode to the steeds of steel and chrome, "a ride you can't forget." E