Infiniti: Owning an Identity

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Drive Time: Scott Fessenden, Infiniti director of marketing, says Infiniti\'s design shifts are both visual and functional.
Drive Time: Scott Fessenden, Infiniti director of marketing, says Infiniti\'s design shifts are both visual and functional. Credit: Drive Time: Scott Fessenden, Infiniti director of marketing, says Infiniti\'s design shifts are both visual and functional.
The way Scott Fessenden sees it, there was an empty parking space marked "design," and Infiniti simply drove in. About 18 months ago, says the marketing chief of Nissan's luxury division, Infiniti seized upon design as its primary brand positioning in large part because none of its rivals had chosen that spot.

"BMW stands for performance, the 'ultimate driving machine,'" says Mr. Fessenden, Infiniti's 53-year-old director of marketing. "Clearly, Lexus owns quality and reliability and underscores that with their tagline, 'the passionate pursuit of perfection.' And Mercedes stood for the pinnacle of engineering. So with design, we're at a very honest place for us to live."

Now, Infiniti is "Brave. By design," and has made its signature product the FX-an SUV designed so aggressively that it looks like it's moving while standing still. Infiniti also has moved bold design inside, with departures such as the curved dashboard in the new M sedan.

The company used radical vehicle designs to rescue its mainstream Nissan division a few years ago from almost losing its large foothold in the U.S. market. Then a couple of years ago, Infiniti organized meetings between its chief designer, from Japan, and the brand's U.S. marketing staff and agencies. "Design just exposed itself as very fertile marketing ground for us," he says.

Infiniti also has been taking out lush ads in auto-enthusiast magazines where it tells specific design stories. In December, along with Cond‚ Nast magazines, it hosted a design forum for journalists at the hip New York restaurant Nobu, featuring avatars such as fashion designer Vivian Tam. And the Infiniti in Black campaign has pursued African-American consumers through venues such as sponsoring February's 30-minute program on design on cable TV's BET channel.

The emphasis even has Mr. Fessenden, a 23-year Nissan executive with a background in operations and sales, talking design. "I drive an M right now," he says, "because it's got such a presence and stance on the road."
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