DETROIT – Executives are marching along a well-worn path as they look to reinvigorate the Infiniti brand in the U.S. and turn it into a viable competitor to Mercedes,, Audi and Lexus in the luxury-vehicle segment worldwide.
The formula they are following is the same one perfected by the very marques Infiniti hopes to challenge: An expanded product lineup, consistent brand messaging, market discipline and a financially strong dealer network that delivers the kind of retail experience top-end customers demand.
Infiniti took a small, first step forward in its revival with the new Q50 sedan launched last year as a more modern replacement for its G-series lineup (though the G37 remains in showrooms for now). But the big product moves won’t begin until next year, as theluxury brand launches a smaller, entry-level sedan and inches toward a broader vehicle lineup.
Meantime, Infiniti is laying the needed groundwork to polish up its brand image ahead of the new-model assault and build market awareness with potential buyers.
The next step will be to name a new ad agency in the U.S., likely by midyear, as executives look to push the marque out from under the shadow of. Infiniti also is asking for investment from its dealer network, as it lobbies for consistent showroom themes and practices aimed at carrying the re-crafted brand message into the retail environment.
The Q50, which got off to a slow start in the U.S. with its August debut, picked up steam in November and December, with combined sales of more than 10,000 units, a surge Michael Bartsch, vice president-the Americas, attributes in part to the car’s newly awarded NHTSA 5-star safety rating.
“If you ever want an indication of the influence of these ratings and these consumer-advocacy groups, (getting the 5-star rating) had a very big impact, very strong,” Bartsch tells WardsAuto in an interview at the North American International Auto Show here.
Of course, incentives also helped move the metal in the final two months of the year, the best November and December in Infiniti’s history. But Bartsch says the spiffs merely were competitive with the rest of the market and, more importantly, 51% of Q50 sales went to buyers new to the brand.
But there’s a lot of work left to do, he admits.
Former Audi of America head Johan de Nysschen set the table for the brand when he took over as Infiniti president in mid-2012 and rebadged its cars with the Q designation and trucks with QX, while announcing plans to expand the lineup at both the top and bottom ends of the price spectrum.
De Nysschen also inked a new roadmap for the brand, with particularly sharp focus on establishing a beachhead in South America and in China, where it is building a new assembly plant.
“Ultimately, China has also got to become a second volume hub for the brand,” de Nysschen told WardsAuto in September.
Collaboration with Mercedes is another linchpin for Infiniti. That partnership will result in a small CUV and sedan derived from the Mercedes CLA platform, with co-production unconfirmed but likely at Nissan’s plant in Aguascalientes, Mexico, beginning early 2017.
Nissan also will begin production of a Mercedes 208-hp 2.0L turbocharged, direct-injected gasoline engine at its Decherd, TN, plant in 2015, some of which will be headed under Infiniti hoods.
Additional cooperation is likely. De Nysschen points to Mercedes as a possible powertrain source for its Q50 Eau Rouge concept that bowed last week at the Detroit auto show, if that car is built, as is likely.
“Will we put the Eau Rouge into production?” de Nysschen asks rhetorically. “I absolutely insist on it. But we have a lot of work to do.”
Bartsch doesn’t dismiss the possibility of Mercedes also supplying a much-needed diesel engine for Infiniti in the U.S. The Q30 will offer a 168-hp 2.2L Mercedes turbodiesel in Europe, but it is unclear whether that engine will make it to North America when the vehicle hits the market next year.
“In absolute terms (diesel) is still a small percentage of the U.S. market,” he says. “But if you look at the impact in specific segments, like luxury SUV, Mercedes has shown (success with) ML (and)has shown it with X5.
“And there are specific markets, like Canada, where you absolutely need a diesel.”
Another key move came on Oct. 2, when Infiniti officially became a full subsidiary under Nissan, rather than just an offshoot of the Nissan brand, where Bartsch says it was stuck “operating under a business model that is more tuned to 4 million cars a year.”
Now, he says, Infiniti can begin to operate as a low-volume, premium/luxury brand should.
“We’ve been selling 170,000 cars a year globally,” he notes. “Of course, we want to grow that number. (But) even if we double it in the next couple of years, it’s still small relative to the mainstream brands.”
Everything done so far and still to come points to one objective: Build the brand into a bona fide luxury competitor in the eyes of consumers.
But that is no easy task, admits Bartsch, who holds dual citizenship in Germany and Australia.
“Brand-building is not a short-term exercise,” says the executive, who jumped to Infiniti in September from his previous role as chief operating officer at Porsche Cars North America, where he led a revival of that automaker’s U.S. retail network. “It is a long-term investment. This does not happen overnight.”
Infiniti has a very loyal buyer base in the U.S., but it is a group that hasn’t grown much over the 25 years since making its debut at the first NAIAS in 1989.
“The challenge of Infiniti is not the quality of the products, not the ability to build premium-class cars,” Bartsch says. “We have to broaden our reach. The brand is too narrow in segments we’re participating in.”
-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has noted the importance of automakers having a viable luxury brand in their product portfolios, pointing to the 40% of industry profits worldwide that come from the modest 15% slice of the market that is the premium segment.
“Mr. Ghosn has given very clear directions on what his expectations for the brand are,” Bartsch says. “Our products only reach 58% of the (luxury) market. We have to get that reach to 80%.”
The “real momentum” will come with the launch in 2015 of the new Q30 that will slot below the Q50, he says, “Then the balance of the product-portfolio momentum will come after the Q30. So it will be a bit of an exponential curve.”
The Q30, which debuted as a hatchback at September’s Frankfurt auto show and is to be built at Nissan’s Sunderland, U.K., plant, will feature several derivatives targeted against such cars as the Audi A3, BMW 1-Series and Mercedes CLA.
Following will be the B/C segment CUV and a top-end flagship. Potentially coming sooner is the performance-brand spin-off signaled by the Eau Rouge concept.
“We need a premium-performance division, an M and AMG,” Bartsch says, referring to BMW and Mercedes’ specialty arms. “We need to do that in a way that is distinctively and definitively Infiniti.
“In order to compete in this end of the market, you need to create that halo effect,” he adds, saying the timetable for launch of such an offshoot brand is “shorter than longer.
“(De Nysschen) is an advocate of this; he knows what strength it has. And coming from Porsche, I understand the importance of product-lifecycle management through leveraging of performance models within the core model. And that’s certainly something we want to bring to the Infiniti brand.”
Bartsch says he sees Infiniti as standing for “young-minded, premium performance,” and finding ways to reach such buyers will be the task of the new ad agency.
Having its marketing in the hands of the same agency (TBWA/Chiat/Day) that oversees Nissan left Infiniti without a distinct message, Bartsch says.
“Invariably if you put the same label into the pot, you’re going to pull out the same suit,” he says. “We want to have clear separation, not only at the product level, not only in terms of the business entity, but (also) on the creative side. And that will be critical in building and defining the character of Infiniti.
“I think we have an enormous advantage in that we aren’t anchored by any heritage or legacy,” he adds. “We have a clean plate, a clean palate to start with.”
Critical will be to carry that message on through the retail side, where Infiniti is asking its 205 U.S. dealers to buy into the brand-boosting game plan with significant investment in facilities upgrades and standardization.
That could be a tough pill to swallow for a network Bartsch admits is falling short of profit targets and suffering from a too-low return on sales.
The National Automobile Dealers Assn. has been on a campaign in the past two years to limit the amount of investment automakers ask franchisees to make in cookie-cutter showrooms, citing studies concluding facilities don’t sell cars and return on investment often is nonexistent.
“In absolute terms, they’re probably right,” Bartsch says of thestudies. “Equally I would say in absolute terms, bad facilities definitely kill the sale of the car. You have to meet somewhere in the middle.
“What I can absolutely tell you, though, if you have a retail environment that is not consistent with the expectation (of the customer), then in the end you don’t have a brand,” he adds, noting he fought the same battle over showroom upgrades while at Porsche.
“There is no other industry I know of where the franchisee argues with the franchisor and says we don’t need to comply with the brand look. But there’s a fine line between over- (and) under-capitalization, and that’s my job to manage that.”
Bartsch says he is preparing to face questions from dealers at this weekend’sconvention in New Orleans.
“(Dealers are) putting their lives on the line, their kids’ lives on the line,” he says. “They have to be confident the people running the ship know what they’re doing.”
But one thing appears crystal clear: The ex-Audi and Porsche executives at the helm of the Infiniti brand have navigated these waters before, and they have a pretty good idea of where they need to go.
– with Tom Murphy