Farewell, Nissan Diesel

Nissan Diesel is dead; long live UD Trucks! That was pretty much the message at an international media briefing in Tokyo last month.

Flying in the face of reduced truck sales, Nissan Diesel has taken the decision to change its company name to UD Trucks. Although the change became effective internationally on 1 February 2010, it will only kick in on 1 September in South Africa. The local company will be called UD Trucks Southern Africa. And it’s not only the company name that’s changing; the Nissan Diesel brand name will completely disappear, to be replaced by UD Trucks all over the world.

Satoru Takeuchi, president of UD Trucks Corporation, declined to answer when I asked exactly how much this exercise will cost. It’s a closely-guarded secret, but one thing is certain: it will be expensive.

Japanese truck makers do seem partial to name-changes: Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation finally evolved in 2003. Isuzu followed suit at the beginning of 2007 with Isuzu Trucks South Africa: a 50:50 partnership between General Motors South Africa and Isuzu Motors Limited Japan. Last year, Toyota Trucks in South Africa changed its name to Hino South Africa.

However, the reigning king of name changes must be the company that is now known globally as UD Trucks. When it first started doing business producing diesel engines back in 1935, it was called Nihon Diesel Industries. The company changed its name to Kanegafuchi Diesel in 1942, and in 1946 to Minsei Sangyo. A third name change took place in 1960, when Nissan Diesel was born.

The latest move begs the question, why another name change; especially in such an uncertain market? The answer is simple: essentially, it’s a brand-building exercise also aimed at alleviating confusion. Down Under, for example, the vehicles are already sold by a company called UD Trucks Australia; in other markets they have been sold by Nissan Diesel. The incorporation of the name, Nissan, has caused even more  confusion. “We have tried to educate the market, but to no avail. Some customers think of one-ton bakkies when they hear the name Nissan,” comments Johan Richards, chief executive officer of Nissan Diesel South Africa.

So why the name UD Trucks? Well, UD is an acronym for uniflow diesel: the company’s renowned uniflow scavenging diesel engine, developed in 1955. As most of our readers will know, this engine combusts diesel on the two-stroke principle, and the intake of the fuel mixture and the exhaust after combustion is in one direction; hence the name. Over the years, UD has also become synonymous with the company’s slogan, “Ultimate Dependability”.

UD Trucks Corporation held a media conference in Tokyo last month to announce the new name. The event itself was interesting for two reasons. One was that the only foreign journalists present were South Africans. The other was the lacklustre attitude of the Japanese media, a phenomenon I find especially fascinating. I’ve noticed that, while freedom of the press may well prevail in Japan, journalists in that country never seem to ask pressing questions. The UD Trucks media conference confirmed this. According to the public relations (PR) manager of another vehicle manufacturer, Japanese companies prescribe what members of the media publish or say about them; implying that Japanese journalists are little more than obedient corporate servants.

Of more relevance to local transport operators is probably the fact that South Africa is held in such high regard, as attendance by South African journalists at the media conference demonstrated. This does make sense. While Indonesia nips at South Africa’s heels from time to time, our country is by far the largest export market for Nissan Diesel/UD Trucks parts world-wide. Our local assembly plant is doing an impressive job: it increased its share of the Nissan Diesel/UD export market by approximately 3% last year, achieving a 20% share of sales internationally.

At the media conference, Takeuchi explained reasons behind the name change and also the background to the new logo. “UD is a symbol of our core technological prowess. Our new brand will be powerful and dynamic, like a thoroughbred horse; supple like young bamboo. We will become symbolic of Japanese culture , much as a tea ceremony is,” he explained. “The reason for changing the company name and the brand name is to establish an unshakable position for the new UD Trucks as a global truck brand with a worldwide presence and as one of the leading brands in the Volvo Group.”

He added that the font of the logo was selected because it is “clean, strong, supple” while the overall design “represents trust”. “There is a diagonal line between the U and the D, which represents the road we will be travelling with our customers; the road to success,” he elaborated.

While there was considerable discussion around the company’s international strategy, it’s all systems go locally. UD Financial Services – a division of WesBank – became officially operational the same day as the global name change, on 1 February 2010.

“This will be an alliance with WesBank,” explains Richards. “As soon as money becomes available, we will put equity into the business. UD Financial Services will offer finance, insurance and tracking.”

At long last, the company will also launch a new medium commercial vehicle (MCV). Nissan Diesel has done surprisingly well in the MCV market in South Africa, despite the fact that its product range is rather long-in-the-tooth. This will change in April this year. “We will introduce a new MCV range in the country that not only adheres to Euro II emission regulations, but continues to meet the needs of customers in various applications,” Richards confirms.

Another big news item is that Nissan Diesel/UD Southern Africa will be servicing a far larger market. “We will take responsibility for the company’s activities in the entire Southern African region: a total of 20 countries,” says Richards.  “We strongly believe that there are a number of untapped opportunities to provide quality products and services to transport fleets across the region, especially in countries such as Nigeria and Angola.”

We chatted extensively about this new area of responsibility while we were in Japan. It’s clear that Richards is very excited about the potential of these new markets, which include the exotic islands of Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles. “My dream is 1 000 additional units a year,” Richards confided over a cup of green tea.

Even though some of these new markets are left-hand drive, the vehicles could be built here in South Africa. This has obvious implications for job creation. I’m holding thumbs that Richards’ dream becomes a reality in the not-too-distant future.

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