Nissan and Infiniti complete a U-turn

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Nissan North America has driven a long way in a short time.

Just a few years ago, the Nissan and luxury Infiniti brand identities were, at best, foggy. Some argue Infiniti never truly defined itself for luxury consumers since its arrival in 1989. The marketer had the industry's highest U.S. incentives. It was losing money and making product and advertising missteps. The Japanese parent was buried under a pile of debt.

Matters have improved significantly since 1999, when France's Renault acquired a controlling stake in Nissan Motor Co. Debt has been cut dramatically and, as of earlier this year, the marketer has achieved three straight six-month periods of profitability.

The two brands seem to have found their souls. Both have recently started launching the first of a slew of models with a styling and performance flair. Experts predict the offerings will help the brands carve strong images and attract more buyers.

"I feel like I walked into a business with all the stars aligned," said Steve Wilhite, who joined the automaker late last year as VP-marketing, overseeing both Nissan and Infiniti. "My mission in North America is to develop marketing communications that are as brilliant and inventive as the products we're bringing to market over the next 18 months."


Mr. Wilhite has been on the turnaround trail before. He helped revive the fallen Volkswagen of America marque during a nine-year run ending in early 1999. As core process leader-sales and marketing, he was essentially VW's marketing chief. After a quick stint at Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. as VP-sales and marketing, he landed at Apple Computer as VP-marketing communications in April 1999.

"Nissan and Infiniti were undermarketed and poorly marketed over an extended period of time," he said. "That work had a profoundly negative impact on the business and the brands' value. You can blame us. You can blame the agency." He dubbed Infiniti's ads as "all over the map" and not capturing the spirit of the brand. "They weren't confident. They were apologies because we didn't fit some expected mold."

Shortly after his arrival, Mr. Wilhite halted work on launch ads for Infiniti's G35 sports sedan. That was 2 1/2 months before the blitz, which arrived in late March. The executions, from Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., "went from being very exclusive to being very invitational," he explained. "We tried to capture the magic of expectations and promise of new technology, new designs and new performance capabilities." He added: "Chiat is a fabulous agency. ... I'd go to war for those people."

Infiniti spent $108.6 million in U.S. measured media last year vs. $124.4 million in 2000, said Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Last week, Infiniti reported March was its best sales month ever with 8,628 units sold, 500 more than last March. Still, the brand's first-quarter sales slipped by 1.9% to 18,645 units vs. the same period a year ago.

The G35 ads showcase the car's performance and technology, positioning it as a driver's car. Infiniti expands its portfolio this fall with the 2003 G35 coupe and M45 sedan. The M45 sedan, which will in the low $40,000s, won't replace the brand's flagship Q45, which starts around $50,000. The FX45 sport utility arrives early next year.

"The future of Infiniti is clearly in the hands of our new products," said Mark McNabb, VP-general manager of Infiniti. "Both G35 models [the sedan and coupe] will help Infiniti in terms of sales, image and momentum."

Wes Brown, an analyst with consultancy Nextrend, is impressed both brands have been able to bring out such stylish vehicles in just over two years. He predicted a year from now, with the new models, Infiniti "will be well on their way." Infiniti is a bit behind its revival than Nissan, partly due to the hyper-competitive luxury segment.

the Z returns

The 2002 Nissan Altima sedan was the first expression of the Nissan brand's positioning. It arrived last fall with TBWA's ads touting it as "the cure for the common car." Nissan's Z sports car, which disappeared after the 1996 model, returns as the 350Z this summer. The 2003 Murano sport utility arrives this fall. Next year, a total redo is planned for the Quest minivan and Maxima sedan.

Nissan spent $426.4 million in measured media last year vs. $489 million in 2000, CMR reports. Nissan reported last week its first-quarter sales rose to 170,417 vehicles, an 11.9% jump from the same period a year ago.

Until recently, Nissan and Infiniti had been reluctant to take styling risks in an attempt to compete with the conservative looks of Toyota Motor Sales USA and American Honda Motor Co., said Susan Jacobs, president of consultancy Jacobs & Associates. Nissan's and Infiniti's new models will "reinforce the themes that these brands are moving forward," she said. "Their strategy is very well coordinated across the products, marketing and pricing, which is key for those brands to build momentum."

Fast Facts

Nissan North America

Marketing chief: Steve Wilhite, VP-marketing

Agency: Omnicom's TBWA/Chiat/ Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.

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