Infiniti and beyond: a less Japanese, more Latin look for premium automaker

BEIJING/ATSUGI, Japan Sat May 24, 2014 10:00pm EDT

BEIJING/ATSUGI, Japan May 25 (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co is looking to give its Infiniti premium brand a design makeover that will dilute its Japanese roots and flaunt a more "passionate" Latin feel.

The bold initiative aims to rev up an upscale brand that has struggled to establish itself in a competitive global market for premium autos. Launched a quarter of a century ago in the United States with an emphasis on its Japanese aesthetics, Infiniti sold about 180,000 cars globally in the year to end-March - about a tenth of rival Audi's sales.

Now seeking to attract Chinese car buyers and more genuinely compete with established global premium brands such as Daimler's Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen's Audi, Infiniti is quietly scaling back its Japanese roots and "going global", says the brand's chief Johan de Nysschen.

To stand apart from "cold and clinical"-looking German rivals, Infiniti aims to be "a seductive provocateur ... to attract people, seduce, be emotional" de Nysschen, a South African former Audi executive, said in a recent interview in Beijing. Infiniti is going "Latin, very Latin," he said, noting the recently launched Q50 sedan offers a strong hint at that new design direction.

De Nysschen wants to boost Infiniti sales to half a million cars a year in the next 4-5 years, with a fifth of those sold in China, the world's biggest autos market. That's a big jump from the 21,000 cars it sold in China in the year to March. For comparison, Audi sold 1.6 million cars worldwide in 2013, including 492,000 in China.

The Infiniti targets are "very ambitious" if not impossible, said John A. Casesa, senior managing director of investment banking at Guggenheim Securities in New York and a veteran auto industry observer.

"It will take a terrific amount of time and money to achieve any measure of success. The dominance of the German luxury brands says clearly that success is a result of cumulative efforts over a long period of time. You'd have to do great cars again and again and again. That might be for 10, 15, 20 years."

"NOBLE OBJECTIVE"

"Audi contributes half of Volkswagen group's profitability. We should have a similar noble objective," said de Nysschen, 54, who joined Nissan from Audi around 18 months ago.

Infiniti's target buyers are those independent-minded entrepreneur types who have charted their own non-traditional road to success, says the brand's chief designer Alfonso Albaisa, a Cuban American named last year to conjure up a new look for the brand.

"Nothing against doctors ... but they (target customers) didn't necessarily go to Ivy League schools," Albaisa said at Infiniti's design studio in Atsugi, 50 kms outside Tokyo, adding that the brand's "emotional" new-look should be on show in cars rolling off production lines by 2016.

These models will have more sharply toned and sculpted "shoulder lines", more nuanced and undulating hoods, and a more athletic posture with all four wheels pushed as far as possible to the corners of the vehicle, Albaisa said, adding that exterior surfaces should resemble "the open ocean ... right before a wave becomes a defined wave."

This, says de Nysschen, should help give Infiniti cars the clearly defined identity they currently lack. Infiniti cars are "very curvaceous", he said, but this just makes some people think the cars "look fat". "That's what we have to begin to fix," he said.

To help drive the 'global' shift, Nissan moved Infiniti's head office to Hong Kong two years ago - siting its headquarters close to China, but maintaining a global profile in a city it says is a gateway between East and West.

Infiniti insiders - not all of whom fully embrace the branding shift - say future models will still reflect Japanese values such as precision and attention to detail, but de Nysschen is full-speed ahead to promote a more global profile.

"Just on our executive team, we have 15 different nationalities," de Nysschen said. "Infiniti doesn't consider itself to be a Japanese brand." (Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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