Ken Ramirez is Nissan Europe’s recently appointed senior vice president sales and marketing. We caught up with him at the 2018 Geneva show to talk about the cars on display and the brand’s plans for an electrified future.

Could you give us a brief overview of the models you’re showing?

“So we talked [during press day reveal] a lot more about electrification and where we’re going. Most of the conversation is about Leaf of course, because it plays an important role. We talked about technology associated with other vehicles, like Qashqai having ProPilot now but most of the conversation is about the evolution that we’re making and the new Leaf which we just recently launched. It’s taken up to now nearly 20,000 orders, so is the fastest selling EV in the market.

“When you go to a second generation it’s no longer a niche, it’s no longer a concept, it’s no longer a test. This is now here, and it’s obvious because it’s everywhere. I think it’s a nice thing to have”

“Of course, we already set the record in volume – 300,000 in total. So it’s really quite a milestone. This is the first electric vehicle that’s in its second generation, so now we’re in a different phase. When you go to a second generation it’s no longer a niche, it’s no longer a concept, it’s no longer a test. This is now here, and it’s obvious because it’s everywhere. I think it’s a nice thing to have.

“The conversation of the [press] conference was not just about Leaf, but about everything else associated with it. The fact that around the vehicle is also an energy ecosystem for the customer so we announced the number of partnerships we’re doing – particularly one with E.ON. So whether it’s, in the case of the UK, a partnership for solar energy that we provide to consumers, mostly to customers with Leafs to help their home have electric storage. Or, in France, windmills for small businesses. Either case, you get the same significant reduction in the cost of electricity but, more importantly, this is the generation of energy so it’s important that you’re independent.

“We also talked about technologies on autonomous driving, which have been building over years. ProPilot, which is our next step in autonomous technology, is in Qashqai now. It’s in the Leaf, too, with a very high take rate.”

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Like you said the Leaf is now in its second generation. What have you learned about marketing electric vehicles to the EU?

“We learned a lot in the process for EV – marketing, distribution, customer dealer network, delivery. What’s interesting is that, of course, Leaf has maybe pushed us a bit to get to more digital content, and this we needed to do anyway. But, the electric vehicle customer also consumes a significant amount of information and is looking at information for the vehicle everywhere, and particularly online. So this has taught us that we needed to be a data source, and this was not the traditional way we did it – you used to put out information, attract the customer and let the dealer give them the data. So we have to evolve to being a data source. That’s so simple, we started to create content online, like small videos about how to use something in the vehicle. This is a very different way to market the cars.

“It’s true that, in Europe, there are very different levels of utilisation of media, different types of media by country. But, generally speaking, this trend of the zero-emission electric vehicle consumer also consuming digital content is true across many different countries.”

Is that leveraging digital routes to be seen more as product experts rather than salesmen?

“Well, not necessarily. What I mean is that, for every vehicle you have to be a product expert. You used to deliver that info in a more traditional way but, today, with EV, we have to deliver it through different conduits, which is also helping us do the same for other vehicles.

“So what did we learn from a marketing perspective? This is one area but, in addition, I think you can extend it to distribution and other areas as well. So, here in the dealer network, you need to have the product experts, which also leads to us having them for other vehicles as well. EV, and particularly Leaf, truly tested us in how we can deliver that product expert feel and additional value to a consumer that’s already quite educated.

“The positive thing is that we learned from it, in that we’re evolving along that journey. So I think this is one of the benefits of having been the first to market with the Leaf – the benefits that we now take on to second generation is all that knowledge.”

So the move to EV feels a little inevitable. Do you see a future for Nissan-branded conventionally fuelled cars?

“It’s really hard to make those predictions. I think we cannot say one way or the other. If you go back, we said that EV would take a significant portion of the market by 2020, but that will be the first step. I think the point about inevitability probably wasn’t as clear as it is today – it’s becoming more and more clear where the industry will go. What I can say is, I think anyone saying they’ll go completely in one direction or another will be taking too much of a risk to make that prediction.

“The trend is definitely increasing for electric vehicles but, where it will end up in terms of powertrain mix, I can’t say. For sure, you can see in our conviction that electrification will come to basically the whole range. I can’t say whether that means entirely fully electric models, but we will electrify everything. Which means there will be some level of electrification in our future internal combustion engine vehicles.”

Has Nissan done any work with 48V systems?

“In the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, we study everything. We’ve looked at many different levels of electrification. In Japan we’re very successful with our e-Power plug-in hybrids, so there’s one application that basically allows you to have an internal combustion engine just to charge the battery and provide the energy. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way and, for each region, it could be different. So I think it just demonstrates that we are looking at many different levels of electrification.”

“All this is evolving, so it’s hard to say what is going to take the majority. More than likely you’ll have the diversity, so for the customer that takes full electrification, an EV; for a customer that takes a different use case, a different type of application. You’ll have some level of diversity on this.”

So is Nissan waiting to see what technology gains traction?

“Well certainly not waiting, but we’re looking at everything. The interesting thing about all the questions we’re having is that, a few years back you probably wouldn’t be asking these questions. You wouldn’t be so focused on electrification. It’s quite interesting that we’ve shifted the industry significantly, and it’s not been a long time.

“The discussion has shifted. It’s not as much about how much horsepower does the engine have? We shifted from that to emissions, and then to zero emission electrification. But the question behind all those questions is, how fast? It’s not if, or when, it’s how fast are you going to get us all on electric vehicles?

“What’s interesting is you look back at when we launched Leaf [just-auto drove a Note based test mule in 2009; Leaf production started in Dec 2010]. You think about the sales success we predicted at that time – not to say we were right or wrong – but it’s happening, and it certainly feels good to have been vindicated. I recall launching Leaf in Latin America, so meeting with a lot of governments to talk about this idea that the world will change to electric vehicles, I can tell you that it was difficult – we were the first ones having this conversation. People then were not really ready to listen.”

Presumably, you have a lot more conversations coming up about autonomous vehicles in terms of getting input from governments and transport authorities. How will Nissan approach this?

“We have a global approach, and of course we’re working with all the elements of autonomous driving. I think you can see with our EV story – you had to get people to become believers, and then go in this direction. All that has helped accelerate our autonomous vehicle story, because you no longer come to something cold – you’ve already built a reputation and a credibility that when you said, ‘This is going to happen in 10 years, believe me, come with us’ it happens, and now we’re in the same position with autonomous. So I think we’ve leveraged EV in many ways, but also from the perspective of a demonstration of our credibility, and that opens a lot of doors.”

To come back to something you discussed earlier, you mentioned energy management. Does that mean you’ll be selling Nissan branded solar panels and Nissan branded wind turbines?

“We are already. In UK we have our xStorage range that you can install in your home or business, including solar panels and storage. The storage uses our battery technology, and that can power your home, charge your vehicle, or move energy from the vehicle to your house – it’s all an ecosystem. The reason is that it’s obvious we are going to continue to take the leadership in electric vehicles, but you already expect that. So we have to really think, we need to go deeper than vehicles, we have to really demonstrate that, if we’re in this, it’s not just for the convenience of easily selling crossovers and electric vehicles.

“Energy services is a natural evolution. In Europe it has different faces in different countries, and we’ll do this because there are different needs and different ways. In UK it’s the xStorage with the solar panels provided in partnership with Ovo. Then in France we have wind generation mostly for agricultural users which provides significant energy savings. If I remember correctly, we can realise up to 75% energy savings in France. In the UK, it’s up to 66%.

“So all this is opening different doors, different venues and different connections for the brand. Will it be Nissan branded? It has to be, because the point of all this is you have a relationship with the brand that’s beyond the vehicle, it becomes something that has value to your life, and not just in mobility but also everything related to it.”

Tesla has recently introduced a grid-scale battery to Australia’s power network. Is Nissan also planning to move towards infrastructure level projects?

“What we do is make building blocks step by step that prove our credibility, and then go to the next step. If you think about autonomous driving, we’ve been doing that for years, maybe a decade. First with Safety Shield in 2004 that demonstrated lane departure warning, departure prevention and then building on all that. We were EV pioneers, proved the concept first, proved that it would make sense, not just the technology but the practicality for the user, the practicality of charging network and the government’s understanding of the benefit.”

We had to prove every one of those steps one by one. So rather than declaring an outlandish end point, we declare that we will continue this journey in a way that you can trust what we do. We want our brand to build value and enrich your life but we cannot do that without trust, so it’s important we build trust step by step.

“The current solutions are individual in each country and different. In the case of UK, it’s individual as you said, designed for single users or we do a version for small business. But for the large scale, we can’t say yet how we will go.”

Jesse Verstraete, Nissan Europe’s General Manager of Corporate Communications and CSR, points out an existing larger-scale application of Nissan’s energy services.

“One example is the Amsterdam ArenA. We are kitting the arena out with recycled Leaf batteries, which is our xStorage unit offering – this would normally be for the household but we’re applying it on an industrial scale. Basically, that solution is going to serve as a backup energy solution so, if power to the arena goes out, there is a backup system.

“We build a good reputation by demonstration. So, rather than claims, we actually do it – this is a good example.”

Turning back to Ken Ramirez – what keeps you up at night?

“I think we have to keep this momentum of innovation. The challenge that we face is, what’s visible here is the vehicle and the technology on the vehicle, but what is not visible here is behind that, everything that needs to evolve as well, in the way we market the vehicle, distribute, deliver, maintain, service the vehicle. All these things are evolving as well, and it’s not particularly glitzy or easy to show. I think what is most challenging is to keep everyone motivated on doing all the other things that don’t make it to a motor show stage.

“The technician that’s servicing your car is just as important as the vehicle but their work will never really be seen on stage here. So I think it’s getting all of us to maintain the motivation and the same level of energy that gets you to a day like today, across all the other elements that need to come together.”