Nissan content chief Dan Sloan on the art of brand storytelling

Dan SloanDan Sloan, a former broadcast journalist for Thomson Reuters, is editor-in-chief of Nissan’s Global Media Center in Yokohama. He oversees a team of brand journalists who produce multi-media content, known as “kotozukuri” or storytelling.

In this cross-posting from Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks spoke to Sloan about how an in-house content house works, the ROI of content, and the impact of the brand-side content creation concept on agencies.

So how do agencies get involved with the Global Media Center?

From time to time, from project to project. We act as a clearing house for agencies if they need content from the archives. We don’t always have it, but we do act as a conduit to get the best version that exists.

With every brand there is a process of discovery and development for content. The assets of a company are all over the place. If you want to get hold of an old commercial from the 1960’s, someone’s got it somewhere, but it helps to have a process for bringing it home. Sometimes brands don’t realise that they don’t own all the rights to their own content. Asset management and storage are very important for us, as we’re becoming the go-to centre for Nissan’s visual assets. We need to ensure that that resource is not vulnerable.

Wasn’t that an issue when the Fukushima earthquake struck in 2011?

We’re located 260 kilometres from Fukushima. It wasn’t an issue, but at that time the Media Center had not been launched. The earthquake was felt all over the place, and there was no de facto safe spot. But that’s neither here nor there. For any brand, you need a secure place where you can store and source content that the company needs. We make content, but we share it too. Unfortunately, if you end up as a concierge for everyone’s digital needs that can take you off your main mission – making stuff. It’s easier for all if acquisition is not too complicated.

Does what you do make for awkward conversation with Nissan’s agencies such as TBWA, which also creates content for the brand?

Any brand that engages in its own content creation may be taking business away from someone. It was not said by our agency, but I’ve read comments from heads of global agencies, who’ve said that the history of content creation on the client side usually ends in tears – that might be wishful thinking. We’d like to cooperate and also get something back from them always. It’s not a zero sum game. We’re all working for betterment of the brand.

One example of a client taking content creation inhouse that hasn’t worked well is Dell and WPP. What do you make of that?

From an agency’s perspective, a client can do whatever they like. They suddenly don’t say, ‘hey, we’ve lost that business’. Maybe it forces them to raise their game. This is not a criticism of any agency, but the more people who make content, the better the chance that people see how they can improve – and that goes for us as well.

A bit like creatives working in an in-house agency, how do you keep journalists interested in writing stories about the same brand?

That’s an argument I’ve heard before, the ‘I’ve only so much attention span for you, one big-paying client,’ thing. But it’s like in journalism, if you’ve got a beat, for God’s sake be interested in it. When we set up the global media centre three and half years ago, it was a process of discovery for us. We weren’t really clear on what the opportunities were. The example I like to give for this is a series we did about our factory in Yokohama where GT-R engines are made. The engines are handmade by four guys who are master craftsmen. We’ve made four videos about their work. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t told this story before. They’re not telegenic models, they’re factory guys. It is a great internal pride story. It’s a heritage story. It’s a brand lover story. It pushes all the buttons. It’s a no-brainer for storytelling. But for an agency, that’s a hard thing to condense into 30 seconds.

This main video runs for more than six and a half minutes. I can’t tell you what the average watch time is, but I would bet that it’s over two and half minutes. With agencies what you get is shorter, and can cost more, but it has its purpose.

Do you see a lot of churn in your department?

We’ve only been around for three and half years, and no one has raised their hand to leave. Relative to some other job opportunities out there or in traditional media, what we do seems to be vibrant and interesting. The real element of this is the job doesn’t feel like desk work.

So how did the Global Media Center come about?

We started in April 2011 at a time when Japan was dealing with a string of natural disasters. We had a story from the get go. We had to achieve an internal confidence to get the factory doors and R&D to open up. We flew in formation into that window of opportunity. But then you have to find the next story after 3-11, and to sustain the narrative beyond the metaphor of a comeback.

We’ve had the return of Datsun. That was a strong story. But you never know what’s going to work. Some of my staff, who are motor sports enthusiasts, came to me with an idea about electric vehicle (EV) racing.

I said make sure the piece was at most two minutes long and in English. Instead, they produced a seven-and-half-minute piece in Japanese with English subtitles, which is usually the kiss of death. It was a behind-the-scenes piece in which they spoke to the race car driver, engineers and designers. It turned out that Top Gear embedded the video on their homepage and it went viral, generating over 90,000 views. We made different video takes on the same idea ultimately, and it was easy – and free.

How independent are you of corporate HQ?

We have Comms departments from other companies visit us, and they’re always astounded by our relative autonomy. There’s a question mark over who ultimately takes responsibility for what we produce, and thankfully when we started out we didn’t screw up. The mentality of staff was that we’re a ‘Start Up’. Some things didn’t work out, but we had to keep trying different things and learn as we went.

So what hasn’t worked?

Sometimes the things that we will think will go viral are stillborn. There’s a science to what will be well received, such as when or what time a video is released, but the insights we have picked up have often been the result of guess work. I love the CSR content we make. But that sort of content will almost never go viral – nor is it intended to.

That’s the finest line that you tread as a brand as there’s potential for you to be seen as exploitative. We did a piece on an area that was hit hard by the tsunami disaster. It was a school building where the community went on the roof, because everything around it was underwater. The story was about the people who went through that experience, and how they got on with their lives two years after. Is that a car story? No. But it was a piece we were proud of, and was picked up by Fuji TV.

Can you talk about the cost of a media centre like yours?

The minute I show a slide with money on it, it will come back to haunt me. But the do-it-yourself approach can pay for itself quickly.

How big is your team?

Including contractors, we have between 10 and 14 people. We have a North American group in Franklin, Tennessee, and a London team. But only Japan has a broadcast facility.

Do you handle social listening as well as content production?

Real time marketing is a process of discovery and every brand needs to find their own way. Some brands take the one-way push out approach – ‘Here’s our piece, and we hope you like it’. Originally, we had oversight of our Facebook page, but soon found that people would respond to our content with an unrelated vehicle comment. Our team wasn’t equipped as a customer service unit. We had to use our presence to point customers with product queries through the appropriate CRM avenues.

One area that we haven’t mastered is the art of a conversation. Listening posts are fine, but being in the conversation can be much more valuable.

Do you think that social listening and production should be kept as separate disciplines?

Speaking with consumers – there’s an art to that. Listening and creating are not the same skill set.

How does Nissan work out the ROI of what you do?

All of marketing and communications is charged with increasing the share of voice and overall opinion of the brand. We have tools that can help us to get an unfair share of voice – where we reach more people than our market share. We can’t correlate our contribution to that numerically, but we did rise in the recent Interbrand rankings [of the world’s most powerful brands, from 65th to 56th] and that shows that we’re heading in the right direction – to sell more cars.

A personal question for you as a journalist. Doesn’t it bother you that your work could be seen as inherently biased?

I accepted from Day One that I’m working for a corporate. We tell the brand story to elevate the brand. However, the audience doesn’t want to watch an info-mercial – and keeping the ‘So-what’ bar high is our job.

In the disaster days, all Japanese exporters faced rumours about radiated vehicles, so we did a story about the safety checks we were doing on cars before shipment. If you speak directly to a situation, you can sometimes nip it in the bud.

Ultimately, if you can look yourself in the mirror as a brand, the audience will appreciate that. You don’t have to show all the warts, but reality works.


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