Infiniti: the wait is (finally) over
It's been 20 long years, but Infiniti has, at last, arrived in Europe. As the newest premium automotive brand on sale in arguably the most discerning market of all, Infiniti has a great deal of ground to make up on established rivals… but with the combination of a stunning range of truly dynamic vehicles and an innovative approach to customer support, the company is ready to make waves.
Infiniti first went on sale in North America in 1989, but it wasn't until April 2006 that the decision to bring the brand to Europe was announced.
In making the announcement, President and CEO, Carlos Ghosn, said: "Infiniti is recognized globally for its blend of design, performance and luxury. We are now ready to bring this unique brand to consumers in Europe."
And that marked the start of an intensive two-year programme which has seen a new European headquarters established – in Rolle, near Geneva, Switzerland – while a full range of four distinctive models have been retuned specially for Europe.
Customer service Just as importantly, an innovative approach to customer service has been developed.
Back in 1985, when a top secret ‘Horizon Task Force' was assembled by Nissan to create a new performance luxury brand for North America, existing US and European luxury brands were already well entrenched in the marketplace. This led the Task Force to look at luxury vehicles both from a product perspective and from the entire purchase and ownership process. By looking outside the automotive sector, its findings had a direct influence on everything from the design of the first Infiniti showrooms, which had the look and feel closer to a luxury hotel than a car dealership, to the brand identity process – all the way down to details such as the design of business cards and parts and accessories packaging.
Exactly the same principles have been applied when bringing Infiniti to Europe. All across Europe, state-of-the-art retail facilities, with modern architecture and an accent on natural materials and lighting, have been readied for the launch of the brand and the Infiniti ‘Total Ownership Experience.'
"The goal in Europe is to make sure that Infiniti is profitable, has long-term sustainability and that customer satisfaction is very high," says Mr. Ghosn.
Great customer service is not a marketing initiative or short-term commitment, it is a core part of Infiniti's DNA. It is the reassurance to customers that they can purchase a new Infiniti in a hassle-free, highly respectful manner – and enjoy the confidence that they will be taken care of throughout the entire period of Infiniti ownership.
Partnerships with premier dealer groups The key to achieving this is starting with premier dealer groups that share Infiniti's vision of adding customer-relevant, high-value services on top of Infiniti's exciting, technically advanced performance luxury cars and crossovers.
For example, Bergé Automoción – Infiniti's partner in Spain and Portugal – is one of the top ten auto retail groups in Europe and a leading distributor of premium and luxury cars in the Iberian Peninsula.
"In Europe, the Total Ownership Experience goes hand-in-hand with great products and with our high quality, well-capitalised dealer network," says Jim Wright, Vice President Infiniti Europe. "We see a huge opportunity to provide customer care unlike anything else offered in Europe today. We will engage customers with experiences tailored around their lives and lifestyles, not just their vehicles themselves."
A key aspect of the Infiniti dealer design concept is its flexibility within a framework, which takes into consideration the differences in geographies, locations and space. For example, some Infiniti European locations may be sales centres only, with service facilities located off-site. All European Infiniti dealerships, however, will have a minimum showroom size big enough to house at least six Infiniti vehicles in the sales lounge, with adequate space dedicated to each vehicle to enhance the shopping experience.
"Infiniti Europe dealers are able to choose from a variety of materials, furnishings and artwork, yet the retail environments will have a consistent brand image and execution and all will provide a very customer-centric setting," said Jim Wright.
Pre-launch research revealed that the typical Infiniti buyer expected greater expertise and more personal service than was being offered by his or her current dealer. Particular points of weakness centred around the booking of test drives and routine services.
Launch of i-contact In response, the dedicated team at the new Infiniti Client Service Centre – called Infiniti i-contact – will operate a more engaging consultative approach. Cues have been taken from the worlds of Private Banking and personal training.
Every member of the hand-picked multi-lingual team has extensive client liaison experience at an international level and will allow Infiniti i-contact to provide a single pan-European point of contact via the memorable "+ 800 INFINITI" toll-free number (00 800 463 464 84).
Infiniti i-contact also appreciates that clients will expect to be able to make contact when it suits them so the service will operate with extended opening hours, six days a week.
Adapting their services to meet individual needs, the Infiniti i-contact team will take the initiative in promoting specially tailored test drive opportunities for clients and, later, proactively coordinating service requirements.
Technical changes The vehicles, too, have been carefully fine-tuned to suit European road and expectations. Working closely with Infiniti development engineers in Japan, a dedicated team of ten engineers based at the company's technical centres in the UK, Spain, Belgium and Germany spent the best part of a year fine tuning numerous aspects of the entire range. The aim is to ensure the cars continue to deliver Infiniti's superb driving dynamics at Europe's higher average speeds.
Although the hardware was designed and engineered in Japan, the team has also been involved in dynamic testing of the technical elements unique to European versions of the Infiniti range, notably the 3.7-litre V6 engine and the seven-speed automatic transmission.
At the same time, they have been involved in retuning suspension settings. Brake and steering feel has also been targeted as has noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Many of the electronic driver aids have been recalibrated for Europe and, of course, a number of changes have been made to ensure that European-specific legislative requirements have been met.
But it is not just major items that have been come under the spotlight. The attention to detail extends, for example, to items such as the switchgear labelling. English script as found on American models might be suitable for cars destined for the UK and Ireland but not for Europe as a whole. Suitable graphics are used instead. The team even found time to fine tune the exhaust note so that the quality of the sound was more appealing… while still satisfying drive-by noise regulations.
Brand DNA Another challenge facing Infiniti Europe is cementing in buyers' minds a distinctive brand message. First, rather than trying to be a luxury brand for all people, Infiniti makes a more personal statement designed to attract buyers with a similar vision – buyers who thrive on experiences rather than status alone.
Mr. Ghosn puts it this way: "Infiniti is not about doing what everyone else is doing. It is not about copying traditional, conservative notions of luxury. We will not try to be all things to all people, but everything to some people."
At the heart of Infiniti's ongoing passion and commitment to create vehicles that have significance beyond their physical substance is a concept called ‘Graceful Strength'.
"We have taken calculated risks to differentiate our models from the predictable offerings that fill the premium car market, offering cars that thrill and exhilarate in a way that is entirely new to customers," says Mr. Ghosn. "Infinitis are vehicles with character, that are a destination in their own right – beautiful, warm designs, sometimes even edgy and aggressive, but always distinctive and true." Graceful Strength is multi-dimensional, prescribing a rich, deep, authentic experience in performance, luxury refinement and design. It can be seen in each Infiniti model's inspired shapes, flowing curves, and in the vehicle's expression of dignity, subtlety and quiet confidence.
As the soul of the Infiniti brand, the concept of Graceful Strength shapes Infiniti's plans and is core to how the company approaches its customers, its retailers, its engineering and technology development, and especially its designs.
Design philosophy Under the direction of Shiro Nakamura, Senior Vice President and Design Director, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Infiniti vehicles have developed a powerful design aesthetic.
"We are people who enjoy designing for life, rather than simply creating mechanical objects," explains Nakamura. "We embrace the continuous advancement of design and share a passion and freedom to create brave new Infiniti vehicles."
Infiniti design not only reflects Graceful Strength, but also a deep history and a tribute to Japanese tradition. Infiniti designs are timeless, honest and true to their intent – simple, unembellished, unadorned – form rooted in its core purpose. Yet, at the same time, Infiniti design is dramatic and daring in its essence, combining modern, progressive luxury with a strong, ageless Japanese heritage.
In the beginning… Infiniti started operations officially on 8 November 1989, when 51 dealers across North America opened their doors to customers. The name had been chosen two years previously: the brand symbolised a desire to be looking forward, to new horizons, to infinity.
In its first decade, initially with just a two-model line-up, Infiniti's high levels of service and customers satisfaction reaped many rewards in independent surveys, such as the J.D. Power survey. By the end of the 1990s, Infiniti was selling a consistent 75,000 units a year.
The new millennium saw a desire for growth and expansion. New models, totally focused on cutting edge design and high levels of driving dynamics, were developed. Customer response was immediate, with sales jumping from 73,000 units in 1999 to 119,000 units in 2003 – making Infiniti the fastest growing luxury brand in the US. By 2004, cumulative sales had topped one million units.
While the early Infiniti years were concentrated on North American activities, Infiniti began a period of global expansion in 2000 with sales starting in Taiwan, followed by entry into the Middle East in late 2004 – where sales have increased by 60 percent in 2007 alone.
In April 2005, Mr. Ghosn announced Nissan's three-year ‘Value-Up' programme, with one of four key breakthroughs set as an accelerated global expansion of Infiniti. Phase one saw the entry into South Korea in 2005, followed by Russia in 2006 and Ukraine and China in 2007. Europe is the latest to be added to that list.
"A dream that started 20 years ago in the United States is now the blueprint for a global luxury automotive brand," said Akihiro Otomo, Head of global Infiniti. "While the automotive landscape has changed over the years, there is one thing that has remained consistent and will never change – our tradition of offering the highest levels of performance, luxury and customer care."
It's been worth the wait…