The middle: Where Nissan thinks IT and marketing should meet

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Nissan’s European CIO discussed how uniting marketing and IT is crucial for brands who want to thrive as the gap between physical and digital continues to close.

There’s a Japanese process called Hoshin Kanri, also known as policy deployment, which ensures that a company’s strategic goals drive progress and action at every level. Another one, Kaizen – the Japanese word for “improvement” – refers to things that improve functions at every level.

As a Japanese company, Nissan considers these principles to be part of its heritage. In other words, “innovation” doesn’t just apply to the people who build the cars.

“Embracing innovation is in our culture; it’s an expectation of every employee,” said Stephen Kneebone, chief information officer at Nissan Europe, at Shift London, adding that it’s especially important as technology has moved to “center stage.”

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“In terms of technology, we’ve gone from a craftsmanship cottage industry to something more industrialized with an overriding focus on cost,” he continued. “Now we’re in the digitalization phase, where technology is touching our cost more directly. Digital is business, business is digital. That’s it.”

Seven years ago, people would visit a dealership several times before buying a car. Now, they may go once, instead engaging with Nissan digitally.

As physical and digital meet in the middle, Kneebone mentioned two different vehicular traits, which he compared to a samurai and a ninja. The former is centered on predictability: safety, accuracy, reliability. The ninja is more exploratory, which encompasses agility, speed and a less rigid approach to doing things.

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“At the end of the day, we need to embrace both of these characteristics. It just so happens that what’s described on one side fits with people who might be in IT, while the right describes people in marketing,” said Kneebone.

“The challenge in front of us is to harness all of it, to have people in marketing and tech and systems. If we don’t address that, we’ll have a vacuum in the middle,” he added.

Similarly, it’s important to avoid a vacuum in the middle of what’s good for the customer and what’s good for the brand. As society started shifted toward being more environmentally-conscious, Nissan invested heavily in electric vehicles and battery technology about a decade ago.

Another trend car brands have to be mindful is younger consumers shying away from car ownership. Kneebone could see people moving toward the idea of a “mobility market,” wherein consumers want to use cars, but not actually buy them.

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Interestingly, this point was nearly identical to one made by Rich Strader, the director of emerging IT at Ford. Big auto brands see the writing on the wall, and know they have to keep up or risk being left behind.

It comes back to a cultural divide, but within a company and the way it relates to its customers. And for Nissan, it comes back to uniting the samurai and the ninja.

“We have the opportunity to use people from the extreme right and use that as a catalyst to perhaps get people from the far left to come to the middle,” said Kneebone. “If we separate and divide, I think we’ll lose a huge opportunity. That’s a dangerous road to be going on.”

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