Nissan to Push LEAF to Mass Market

In the recent surge in electric car launches, one maker stood out, and not in a good way: Nissan. Depending on your perspective, its polar bear ad was either cliche, cringeworthy, touching, or in conflict with your worldview. It took the most overused symbol of climate change and used it to to convey that your use of their LEAF electric car would play a part in addressing global climate change.

Even more off the mark was a billboard add featuring a globe with rainbows and dolphins on it. Even those who are predisposed to like such imagery found the association at best confusing, at worst offensive to their sensibilities. It was offputting to anybody else. Nissan seemed to not have a firm grasp on the wheel of its marketing, and the sales have reflected as much.

Fortunately, rather then continuing to drive the LEAF further into the niche realm with limited sales and a confusing brand image, Nissan is taking a different approach: According to the UK edition of Marketing Week, Nissan is readying to do an extended campaign towards a mass market audience. 

The messaging will be aimed at two groups: green and tech-minded consumers. The green messaging will focus on the car’s speed, charging options and zero emissions, while the tech messaging will zero in on LEAF’s integrated navigation and telematics system, along with its phone app that will allow drivers to pre-cool and heat their vehicle cabin and plan trips before getting into the car.

Such messaging has a much greater chance of reacher a wider spectrum of both segments, and it’s clear that Nissan is getting the message when Yasmin Al Jeboury, Nissan CRM manager told Marketing Week,

We’re making a massive investment and this is going to be a big volume line. It’s not a niche model, it’s a family car and that’s what will make it successful. [Electric cars] have to do what normal cars do – that’s sometimes forgotten with other electric vehicles and marketing that’s out there.

While I’m mostly on board with this sentiment, calling the LEAF a family car is stretching it. The styling and size feels clearly aimed at a hip, single, tech-minded audience. Carting around the kids does not appear to be a primary use of this car. However, shifting its marketing out of the cliche and into the concrete is a wise move that will likely get Nissan much improved results in the end.

Readers: What’s your opinion of Nissan’s LEAF marketing to date, and what might you suggest they do with their upcoming mass market campaign to achieve optimum results?


Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, global trend tracker, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.



Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing. || ==> For more, see

24 responses

  1. As a Leaf driver myself, I am hugely disappointed with what Nissan has done so far. 

    Ghosn (Nissan CEO) had a vision … see documentary Revenge of the Electric Car … yet the dealers seem to be in a different camp.  They do not want to sell the car. 

    Pity; as I would never trade mine in … except for a Tesla. :)

  2. I bought my Nissan LEAF because I don’t want to buy gasoline. A simple ad comparing to people driving the same commute to work, the same distance while displaying a fuel cost tally for the total trip for each car.
    An ad like that comfirms that the LEAF IS a car, but is tremendously less expensive to operate.

  3. I’ve been delighted with my Leaf. Most of my driving is short distance, and it chews through that very easily, but I also make monthly trips of about 120 miles, and (with a top-up mid-journey) that’s no problem either. It’s quicker to accelerate out of junctions than petrol cars, and its throttle response is quicker than any other car I’ve tried. As the article implies, it’s a techie’s dream – it’s a well equipped car with mod cons such as keyless entry and ignition, onboard telematics, remote control aircon, and it seamlessly plays music from my iPhone (including Spotify or internet radio) without me having to touch the phone. Heck, you can even get the onboard computer to read the news headlines (or any other RSS feed) out to you if you’re thus inclined.

    But here’s where I disagree with the article: it’s actually fairly practical as a family car. The rear seats are quite spacious – I’m a 6 foot tall fat bloke, and I have no problem getting in the back – there’s plenty of head and leg room. It’s no problem at all to get four adults in the car, and I’ve done this several times. As with most cars, the fifth person requires that the back three are on fairly friendly terms, but it’s by no means impossible… and three kids would be easy.

    And all the time it’s SO smooth, quiet and effortless, and you start every morning with a full charge… once you’ve driven a modern EV, you’ll never want to go back. That’s the key thing… go and test drive it. It’s not what you expect, it’s a real revelation. It may be expensive up front, but it’s very well equipped, ultra modern, and it costs me about 20-50p per day for overnight charging instead of around £7 for my (now sold) petrol car.

    For the record, I’m just an independent customer, and these are my genuine personal opinions, not paid or compensated in any way.

    1. Well Jeffrey, paid or not, I appreciate the context and real world experience. It’s not evident by its appearance that that’s the case, and I hope Nissan’s new marketing does a good job of making that clear. If it succeeds, this car can jump out of being a niche player and into something that more of the population sees as a valid option to consider.

  4. For the US market the focus needs to be on Energy Independence.  The US produces 100% of their own electricity but imports more than 50% of it’s oil from other countries.  Electricity can be produced from many different sources including renewables.  Once the LEAF production goes on line in Tennesee, Nissan can really tout the Built and Powered in America. It’s the key reason I bought my LEAF.
    The “Gas Powered Everything” commercial was one of the best I’ve ever seen.  It showed that everything in your life is powered by electricity, why not your car?

    1. Matt you’ve definitely got a point, for many people of various political persuasions, energy independence is definitely desirable. As is not having to pay the increasing cost of gas. Thanks for the reminder about the gas powered ad, that was a clever way to make a point that many may not have gotten otherwise.

  5. I disagree with the author’s take on size.  The LEAF is no slouch for typical hauling duties.  It legitimately seats 5 adults and the rear storage is surprisingly large.  If you have more than 3 or 4 kids and more than a closet-full of stuff to haul then you need a van, not a family car.

    1. Yes, I agree. I initially dismissed the LEAF due to size based on photos – despite my long term interest in electric cars. But then I went to one of their drive events in November of 2010 and was very surprised to find how roomy the car is (front and back) – I’m 6’4″ – plus plenty of room for my mountain bike with seats down. (Always been a fan of hatchbacks.). Well, I was kicking myself for having not signed up for a reservation – the list was closed by then. Happily, I was able to jump the line in May 2011 and take home an orphaned LEAF. It’s been great driving on electricity ever since!

      1. Great to know. Well given Christopher’s response, one that I’m guessing is common, it’s on Nissan to effectively make the point that its car is spacious, and not merely a small techie’s toy

    2. I think the author should have test driven the car before dismissing Nissan’s assertion that it is a family car.  I too have been happy with this car to haul my toddler around.  It is more spacious that my other car, a Honda Civic 2006.  The Leaf looks smaller than the Civic, but is much roomier inside for the car seat, for an adult to bend in and out to take an infant carseat or a toddler in and out.  

  6. Could they have made it look even uglier than it is? It’s a shame they made a great electric car but designed it so poorly. It didn’t have to be that way

  7. I sell the LEAF for a Los Angeles dealer. I’ve sold over 200 of them and consider myself one of the more knowledgeable sales people. My customers least year were mostly early adopters who had been anxiously waiting to get their EV and get off of oil. Most were enviros, but a lot are techies. Living in LA, those two groups overlap a lot. 

    My sales number fell off a cliff at the end of last year. Some of the problem stemmed from the outrageously negative campaign against plug-in cars put on by the political right wing in our country. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh led the way bald faced lying about the technology. I can assure you I lost some customers due to this campaign since they specifically identified some of the Fox News talking points when they told me they changed their minds about getting the LEAF.

    That aside, the advertising for the LEAF needs to get very aggressive. My dealership is planning an expensive campaign to advertise to the LA Jewish community since they understand the need to get off of oil better than most. We’ll point out the direct connection to Israel’s security and the oil sheiks in Saudi and the Mullahs Iran. My Jewish customers tell me that will be effective. 

    We’ll also make heavy use of customer testimonials. As LEAF owners commenting here have confirmed, word of mouth from happy customers is one of our strengths and we should use it.

    I asked from my customer list for a one or two line testimonial of why you like your LEAF and got a huge reply of over 70 comments. I compiled them into an email and sent them to the creative director at TBWA Chiat Day, our agency. His reply was stellar. I suspect they will use some of them in their national campaign.

    For the record, I am comfortable in the knowledge that EVs will rule the roads in the not too distant future. We need to get past this “valley of death” and get more cars into people’s hands. Existing customers are our best asset.

  8. For me it’s simple economics and range.  We have two vehicles in our family.  One we drive a lot in, haul big stuff and take occasional long road trips (currently a minivan which gets an average of <20 MPG) and one I drive to work in (an 18 yo Subura that gets <18MPG). 

    You'd think the LEAF would be an ideal replacement for my Subaru, and it would be, except I only drive ~3000 miles per year in it (I work from home a lot).  At that usage rate, the LEAF makes no economic sense and is a bad use of the embodied resources required to make it.  (I feel the same way about solar panels in  installed in western WA state BTW ;-)) 

    The LEAF also can't replace the minivan due to range and hauling capacity.  I suppose we could replace the minivan with a LEAF if we had a nearby place to rent a truck/minivan when we needed it, but that infrastructure doesn't exist in the 'burbs and again it adds to the cost of ownership and is a lot less convenient.

    Of course I'd like nothing better than to not have to burn another gallon of gas in my life (stupid thing to do to a non-renewable resource), but practical, financial and environmental issues (embodied resources in a car that will be mostly idle) outweigh my desire to have the latest tech and get off oil (sigh).

    So I'm waiting for the cost to come down – a lot – or better yet – have access to a very convienient car sharing service in my neighborhood so we could replace the minivan.  Until then, I'll just drive a lot less and use my electric bicycle whenever I can.

  9. Mark, you won’t have too long to wait. In about 18 months, the first LEAF leases will come due and there will be a growing number of used LEAFs with plenty of life left for a very good price of about $15-$18K. I’m speculating here since I’m gong based on the residual value, but it should be in that ballpark. A 3 year old LEAF for that price will be a bargain and a great replacement for that smelly, polluting old Subaru.

  10. We leave our mini van parked in the garage most of the time since we bought a Leaf 18 months ago. That makes our primary car using no gas and our mini van using less than half of what we had used in the past.  The Leaf is fun to drive and unbelievably cheap on fuel cost (4.3 miles/kwh = less than 2 cents a mile). 

    Fun, dependable, great handling, and home grown energy.  People will figure it out when the purchase price comes down.

  11. Interesting new two-minute video interview with George Shultz reveals that he drives a Leaf. Since his electricity comes from solar panels, he says driving his electric car is like “driving on sunshine.”

  12. Hi Sunpwrd,
    Please excuse a foreigners ignorance, but why would “Right wingers” campaign AGAINST a car that runs on 100% American-made electricity when the alternative is one that continues reliance on imported oil – mainly from the Middle East? They can’t be that dumb?

  13. Billgresham, yes they can be that dumb! It’s incredible, but the right wing news media, personified by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, conflate EVs with Obama, and they so badly want to defeat him that they will fight against electric vehicles that have obvious benefits to our economy, national security and environment. The hope is that if they can make people shy away from EVs, then they can point to the failure of the technology and say that it’s another failure of his administration.

    This is egregious, and borderline treasonous behavior, but they clearly are guilty of it based on heavily documented instances on Fox News. Limbaugh, too.

  14. Yes I think that Nissan’s ads need to Keep It Short & Simple (KISS).  I own an old Honda standard gas car but am seriously looking at the Leaf… waiting for the next generation model and whatever improvements they may add on.   A great ad would be Leaf drivers driving past gas stations, rolling down thw window and giving them (Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, BP, etc.) the finger. Of course the finger would have to be blurred or blackened out… but that would be an ad to remember and a point well taken. 

    Let’s see if Nissan has the balls to run an ad like that. If they want attention, that’ll get it. I guarantee.    

    San Francisco, CA

  15. I live in Marin County California and we probably have like 10% of all the electrics sold in the neighborhood. As Nissan found out, it’s a difficult marketing effort. Electric cars frankly are best for people with a lot of life-style flexibility and extra money for vehicles. This won’t be true forever but now it’s a matter of convincing someone with a 100k+ income that it’s more impressive to get out of a Leaf than a BMW 3…. and around here it is. I think Telsa will hit the mark.

    The lease is the simple way to go. When people ask me what it cost to drive. I say “$350/month and the power is nearly clean and free” so you can always feel that you can go wherever without concern about burning fuel.

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