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CAR readers were asked to submit their questions to Infiniti Europe vice president Jim Wright. We put them to him and here are his answers. It’s a two-part interview – click here to read round two.
CAR readers: What is Infiniti’s marketing strategy for the UK and Europe?
Jim Wright: ‘That’s a big question for a car brand. Basically we want to position the vehicles as being dynamically strong with a choice of customer experience. One of the things we have learned is that buyers of premium cars today don't feel particularly special. As a brand extends its line-up so its ability to offer high levels of customer service is compromised. The smaller your volume, the better you should be able to treat your customers. We are putting a lot of effort into our sales and service network to make sure the customer is feeling special because I think a lot of other brands have lost this in terms of the human experience. We are a very small niche player in the market, our budgets are reasonably limited so we have to be very, very clever in the way we are spending our money. We can't be on television every night telling people about Infiniti because we don't have the money. So in terms of our communication activity, that will be in line with the introduction of new products and our network roll-out. It will be linear with the volume growth of the brand.’
So an equal weighting between the product and customer service?
‘Yes, through the physical experience of buying a car plus the aftermarket care. For example, partly in answer to our very thin network coverage, we will come and pick up your car and have it serviced, no matter where you are. So if you live in Paris and are in Brittany, you call us and we will come to Brittany, collect your car and have it serviced. And if you are in any car, not just an Infiniti, and it breaks down, because you are an Infiniti customer we will take care of you. The customer is covered, rather than just the car. I was once told by a customer that if we can match BMW’s level of dynamic performance with Lexus’s level of customer service then we will have something that’s unique. That’s stuck with me because I think nobody is doing both of these at the moment. One of the things I often tell my team is not to focus on being somebody else but to be ourselves. Don't be a copy. People who have this amount of money to spend on a car can afford to buy many things and for sure they won't buy a copy. We need to be original.’
Do you see Europe as 17 individual markets or as one single market?
‘That’s a very interesting question. Do we think the customer in the UK is fundamentally different to the customer in Hungary or Poland? I don't. I think they have the same buying motivations, their taste might be a little different and you can see that in the mix that all brands have across the European markets. There’s more commonality across Europe than you think. People who buy our cars, for example, are making a deliberate choice to be different because they are going to have to spend time explaining to their friends and relatives why they have chosen one of our cars rather than a default brand – and I think that motivation is the same for all buyers… I guess.’
What are Infiniti’s core values?
‘Performance – we want to be known as a performance brand. One of the questions I’m often asked is why is a 3.7-litre V6 our smallest petrol engine, why nothing smaller, and my answer is that we want to establish ourselves firmly in the customer’s mind as a performance brand today. Secondly, hospitality. I want Infiniti to be known as an hospitable brand both in terms of customer service and in terms of product too. Our cars are quite warm. Because this sector is dominated by the Germans it’s become the default choice in the premium market to be quite cold and clinical and very engineering focused. That even comes through when you walk into our competitors’ showrooms – they tend to be quite cold places. We are trying to bring some warmth and colour to the premium segment, underpinned by satisfaction both with the brand and the car. These are the two pillars of the Infiniti brand.’
Why would someone buy an Infiniti over say a BMW, Lexus or Jaguar?
‘The people who are buying our cars today, the early adopters, will probably have a different buying motivation than those that buy our cars in three of four years’ time. Our levels of awareness today are very, very small. The last time we measured this, in summer 2009, across Europe we had a 2.5% brand awareness. So today, buyers are looking for an alternative, a car to differentiate themselves through something different, but it’s still very credible. Today’s Infiniti buyers know about cars, if you know what I mean, and I guess that there are people today who buy a premium brand who don't know anything about cars – they make their decision on the strength of the brand. It will take years and years before we get anywhere close to that position.’
How long will it take Infiniti to get there?
‘Well, it took Audi 20 years didn't it? It’s taken Lexus, what, 21 years. It depends on Infiniti’s product cycle, I guess, but with Renault and Daimler, the product cycle should be quicker so it could take us less time. Don't forget that Audi and Lexus started off as different sections of VW and Toyota showrooms. When Lexus started selling the LS they had a little roped off section in the Toyota dealership. It would have been far, far easier and we would have sold more cars if we had utilised the Nissan network for example, but we jumped in the deep end with a bespoke dealership. Most of the dealers that we have signed with are not Nissan dealers, or if they have Nissan franchises, they have them among a portfolio of other brands. When we started this business we took the hard decision that we should do the things that will be right for Infiniti in the long term. That meant a separate network, a relatively high level of investment for our partners to convince the customer of the credibility of the brand. Infiniti has a different team and a different headquarters. You can imagine how difficult this was in the automotive corporate sector…’
When will Infiniti be profitable in Europe?
‘We will have a business selling 10,000 cars a year, which we should achieve by the end of next year. Everyone in the company appreciates that you don't establish a premium brand overnight. Economic conditions have made it worse for us. The financial crisis has put us back 12 to 18 months. We have tailored the business accordingly. Swings and roundabouts…’
It’s not the best time to launch a car company…
‘Arguably the most difficult time to launch an expensive brand, yes. We need to signify to the market that we are different. The vast majority of people buying into the German luxury brands will not consider Infiniti, but there will be a portion of people who are ready for something different, as long as it is credible. There are enough of those people in the market for us to make money. We are offering a different choice from being German – it’s about customer satisfaction, it’s about a different buying experience, it’s many different parts. I don't want you to think that our marketing position is that “we are not German”. We want to be a credible alternative to the Germans and then offer that level of customer service.’
Will your products continue to be global or will Europe get bespoke models?
‘Will taking products aimed at America, talking out V8 petrol engines and dropping in V6 diesel be enough to satisfy the European market? No, it will not. The core of the range – FX, and G – will be global. But we already have cars today that are not sold globally. The QX has just been relaunched in the US and it will not be global – it will be sold in America, Russia and the Middle East. But it will not be sold in Western Europe because it’s obviously not suitable for that market. The FX is not sold in Japan – another example. And the reverse may be true – we might have some models that are sold in Western Europe that are not sold elsewhere. Powertrains will also be a point of differentiation for our different markets.’
>> Come back tomorrow for more of your Infiniti questions
How important is it that Infiniti is Japanese?
‘It’s very, very important. Our advertising says “Created in Japan”. The nationality of our cars is reflected in their design, in their engineering, in our hospitality, even down to our colour (a rich purple, the Japanese colour that represents luxury and status).’
In Japan Nissan and Infiniti share models – would this happen in Europe?
‘No, and I think this will change in Japan in the future.’
What is more important to Infiniti in the next five years: profile, profit or sales, and why?
‘I don't mean to be flippant, but all of them. In what order? Profile and brand recognition I would say is number one. And then profit and sales, which are obviously interlinked. My clear objective is to ensure the brand is positioned and recognised in the sector as credible. The first five years are about giving birth to the brand, establishing a network, introducing the product to the customers and establishing who we are and our level of credibility. With five years of performance car sales, we should be able to do this, I think. If, after five years we have done that, then I think we will have done a good job.’
And if you haven’t?
‘You’ll be speaking to someone else then!’
Does the emphasis on performance rule out the possibility of hybrids in the Infiniti line-up?
‘No, because you can have a performance hybrid. At Geneva this year we showed you the petrol-electric M hybrid. It will go on sale in the UK in April 2011 and will be the only car in that sector available with V6 petrol, V6 diesel and V6 hybrid powertrains. It will be the fastest M model you can buy in Europe and with the lowest CO2 in our range. And it will be marketed as a performance model that is also a hybrid, rather than a hybrid that’s also rather quick. [Infiniti and Nissan CEO] Carlos Ghosn has also confirmed Infiniti will have an all-electric car in the mid-term.’
So a hybrid model in each sector?
‘Well, let’s just say that if we have a V6 petrol-powered model today, then it’s highly conceivable we could have a hybrid in the same model in the future. If we are introducing a hybrid on the FR platform in the M range, why not on the other FR models…? Nissan will be all-electrical, hybrid will be Infiniti specific.’
Any motorsport ambitions at all?
‘No. It’s not in line with what we plan to do. We could do something with the Nissan GTR platform - it would be a great looking car and it would go like stink – but everyone would know it's a GTR platform for good and for bad. GTR is quite a hardcore vehicle – is this in line with our brand values? No, I don't think it is. Premium isn’t just about going fast is it?’
Will Infiniti follow the traditional model structure followed by the Germans in Europe or will it borrow from Nissan’s niche-chasing business plan and do something different?
‘That’s a very good question. I think the premium sector by definition is very traditional and you have to be aware that the premium customer has certain expectations. I think FX is probably at the edge of that envelope. G is quite a conservative car. I’ve seen the next G and it’s less conservative. We will push that styling dimension to be less conservative than it is today. I think if we do a smaller car than G – which we may do – that car again would need to be really distinctive. If we come out with something traditional it will be very hard for us. We need to come out with something a bit different. I want our cars to have a design that creates an opinion.’
And styling – will the next-generation G, for example, look the same in Europe as it does in America?
‘Yes, but bear in mind that Infiniti has its own designers and international design studios. Those designers are Infiniti designers, not Nissan designers. They design Infinitis to be Infinitis.’
So a smaller Infiniti is on the cards for Europe?
‘It’s pretty high up the wish list. But again, it will be need to be different in the way it looks. And our core element of performance will be maintained, irrespective of the size of the vehicle, as will our desire to offer something distinctly different to the customer. We want them to maker a conscientious buying decision, to give them something that’s a little bit out of the box.’
Who do you see as your key rivals?
‘I once heard Ghosn make a very convincing argument as to why in 15- 20 years from now there will be far more premium brands that will originate from Asia. Younger people in the West are paying far more attention to what’s happening in Asia in terms of trends, fashion and style. I believe him. This will become more apparent over the next few years. We’ll be looking at Europe, but we’ll be looking everywhere else. For the brand to be successful we need to look at rivals everywhere. You launch in Europe, the biggest luxury market in the world, to show that you are credible, to have that authenticity with premium customers.’
What are your sales targets for Europe and the UK over the next five years?
‘This year in Western Europe from October 2008 when we opened our first site – it was Paris, then Barcelona – to now we have sold 3000 cars. In our 2010 fiscal year, we should sell 5000, helped by new M and the introduction of diesel, with about 450 in the UK. And next year  I guess we should be close to doubling that to 10,000 in Western Europe and around 1000 in the UK. So it’s still a very small volume in Western Europe. This year in China we will sell more than 10,000 and in Russia we’ll sell about 6000. We were at around 8000 in Russia before the financial crisis.’
How quickly will the impact of the relationship with Daimler be felt at Infiniti?
‘Wait until the 2010 Paris motor show – we’ll be making a big announcement then. I was in Japan last week and there were a lot of studies groups hard at work. The work has started already.’
Was the Essence (the 590bhp petrol-electric Infiniti showcar unveiled at Geneva last year) to show what you can do or what you will do?
‘Both, I think. You will start to see in future more design cues from this car coming through. Will we build it, will we build an equally impressive flagship? When the time is right I think we will do. The number of people that came up to me and said “How much for the Essence?” was incredible. It helped to establish credibility. One idea could be, what if we would build an electric vehicle with reasonable range, with the Essence’s performance and body. Would that be a compelling customer proposition? I think so. Today the technology is not ready to support that. Maybe in five years’ time it will be. We are coming into the toughest market in the world. We would be stupid to say we are going to sell this many or that many. There’s no value to me in being the guy with the loudest voice shouting rubbish. My view of how we should proceed over the coming years is to move solidly. We are still planting seeds – we’ve launched the brand, and I think product has done us proud. And if we keep watering that plant, maybe it will produce some flowers.’