Finding Infiniti’s Limits

Can the QX30 help define Infiniti in Europe?

At the Geneva motor show back in March, Nissan-owned Infiniti showed it’s QX30 concept car, a stunning compact crossover with a design that follows in the solid grooves laid down by the premium brand’s previous Q60 and Q80 concept cars and its Q50 Eau Rouge.

Infiniti are placing their bets on this car, with a version expected to go into production by 2017. The QX30 is a strong combination of muscular, flowing lines on the outside and high quality detailing on the inside. Come 2017, it is also expected to form part of Infiniti’s aggressive strategy to grow in key global markets, particularly Europe. However, despite Infiniti executives making no secret of their desire to grow the brand in Europe, Infiniti’s cars themselves, have never been the reason that, in Europe, the brand languishes with an almost invisible 0.02% market share. A good car with the right design, specification and price tag might sell in the USA, but European luxury car buyers want something more elusive. They want a brand with focus, meaning and resonance.

The European luxury-car market is one of –ation’s: aspiration, sophistication; inspiration, social-status declaration and validation. It is a market in which emotion is as important as function, and in which brands live or die by an intangible cultural meaning that must be relayed with confidence — not merely by a campaign, but by a company’s entire being. The German big three understand this implicitly, and, in typically German fashion, can communicate their meaning with laser precision and resonance: these brands don’t need numbers or specification sheets to prove who’s “The Ultimate”, who’s “The Best” or even who is “Advanced”. Much more than machines that get one from A to B, the German premium brands prove to their European owners — and, as importantly, those surrounding their owners — that the owner is part of a lineage of car owners at the forefront of life and culture. As former BMW Chairman Helmut Panke once put it, “Focus on understanding who you are, what you stand for. What are the values you believe in for the products and services you sell and provide?” In other words, it’s about making cars that fit your brand vision, not a vision that fits your cars.

Infiniti, on the other hand, comes at the market from a more American perspective: if you build it, they will come. The cars are arguably better value than their German counterparts, score highly on reliability and quality, offer luxurious comfort, advanced technology and competitive performance. More recently — and after opening a design studio in London — they have shown their sophisticated understanding of design language with a new look that’s differentiated enough, without being too progressive to scare off buyers. Based on that set of qualities, the brand has managed to secure a respectable 5.4% share of the US market — still far behind the Germans and Lexus. But each model in the range manages to do all this without making any confident declarations about Infiniti itself. In other words, Infiniti is focused on making cars that fulfill a market segment or business case rather than a brand vision.

Infiniti isn’t the only brand to suffer from such a problem. Japanese counterpart Lexus fares little better in Europe with just 0.3% market share. Cadillac has also tried and failed in Europe on numerous occasions during the last few decades. Recently, Cadillac CMO, Uwe Ellinghaus (ex-BMW and ex Mont-Blanc) showed that GM’s luxury brand is at least aware of the problem, when he went on record with Forbes stating: “We lack relevance. We need to have a new point of view to show why we’re relevant. You can’t just put product — even great product, which we have — in front of people. If the brand isn’t relevant, people don’t care.”

The challenge for Infiniti (and Lexus) in Europe is no longer a product challenge — but a brand challenge. Being a recent entry to the market, Infiniti may not have the history of the Germans or Cadillac, for certain, but neither do they seem to have begun building one. Until Infiniti can clarify who they are — and, what they stand for — even the best new products in the automotive world wouldn’t dent Europe.

Richard Green is a senior product and design strategy consultant at Plan in London. He specialises in the automotive and technology sectors and provides advice to clients such as Ford, Toyota, Yamaha, Boeing, Microsoft and Samsung.