If Only Infiniti's Commercials Were as Appealing as Its Cars

Product Line Evolves Nicely, Ad Strategy Doesn't

By Published on .

This is about success and failure. Here's the success part: In May, Infiniti's U.S. sales were up 9.8%, thanks largely to the retooled G35, which is a corker. That would suggest the advertising from TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., is working just fine. Almost 11,000 cars and SUVs were delivered.
The failure part
Here's the failure part: Lexus was up by nearly as big a percentage, and it sold nearly 32,000 cars and SUVs. That's a 3-to-1 advantage, and it's been that way for 18 years. That would suggest Infiniti advertising is a colossal failure.

Now, to be fair, for most of this decade, advertising has been the least of the brand's problems. Nissan, the parent company, has been in dire financial straits, and the company's product decisions were abysmal. But one fact is inescapable. Lexus and Infiniti were introduced at the same time with similar products and the same concept: to take on German luxury-car makers. Lexus broke into an early lead and has never looked back.

Can the gap ever be closed? Not with the current advertising strategy, nor any of the previous 15 strategies that have since come and gone.

Not glaringly awful
Not that the current work is glaringly awful. In fact, if you have some good products to sell -- which Infiniti once again does -- the ads more than serve. The latest TV spot, for instance, is for the FX midsize SUV. It's set on a country road at night, the summer air thick with sparkling fireflies. One of the bugs alights on a headlight and gets the ride of its life. It's cute. It's pretty. The car looks great.

So what?

So the FX is a sports car in a crossover's body? So the M is fast and refined. So the G35 is a rocket. Swell. What makes them Infiniti? What is Infiniti? Don't bother trying to answer. There is no answer -- or, at least, none apparent. Not even a tagline.

The irony is that the only campaign in 18 years that successfully answered such a question is one of the most ridiculed in

The Zen of self-parody
advertising history: the infamous "rocks and trees" stuff from Hill Holliday. They overdid the zen imagery well into self-parody, and they waited far too long to show what the mysterious new luxury cars looked like, but at least they had a proposition: Luxury is defined not by cost or by prestige but by how design and workmanship satisfy your inner sense of well-being. It was to be the luxury car for well-to-do non-jackasses.

Pretty good psychology: conspicuously inconspicuous consumption. "Hey, look at me supposedly not caring if you look at me!"

But the floating leaves et al. were a fiasco, and the brand hasn't found a coherent message since. Meantime, Lexus, in its relentless pursuit of prestige, has unquestionably become the Japanese Mercedes.

The Japanese BMW
Ironically, for Infiniti, this presents an opportunity. Circumstances dictate that it must be the Japanese BMW -- which, by the way, it already pretty much is. Per corporate marketing strategy, the G35 is a direct competitor to the BMW 3-Series and the M sedans to the 5-Series. But where is the message, the one that conveys both luxury and exhilaration across all models and across all media?

It has taken three years and fortunes to get the product line in shape. How can it be that, in the same period, an advertising line has not emerged? Be not misled by sales increases tracking with luxury-car sales across the board. That is how you fail by succeeding.

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