How do you launch a new car brand in the UK? That’s the challenge faced by Infiniti. Nissan’s luxury division is truly massive in the US, but until now has not been seen in Europe. That’s all to change next April, when the Lexus-like brand takes its UK bow.
It’s a daunting task.
Premium is where it’s at nowadays, with the might of BMW, Mercedes and Audi looking fearsome challenges for anyone, never mind a brand completely without establishment. But this, explains regional director Angus Gray, is very much to Infiniti’s favour. And dealers are to play a vital role in this. ‘Our legacy will be the appointments and locations we make now,’ says the Scot. ‘When we look back in 10 years’ time, this will be key.
That’s why we’re being so uncompromising.’ By 2013, the UK will be Infiniti’s main market in Europe, accounting for a large proportion of the region’s aimed-for 25,000 annual sales. In the build-up, though, he admits the unique challenges of the UK are presenting Infiniti with real issues to overcome. ‘When we brief our agents, we say we want an arterial road location, with good visibility, good access. You and everyone else, they tell us!’
Despite this, Gray stresses how important location is to Infiniti’s plans. ‘We want locations where, six months after opening, the traffic is so high, a big percentage of the local population know where it is.’
Infiniti plans 14 sales points in the UK by the end of the European launch roll-out in 2009: across the region, there will be 78.
We have already seen Russian-style supersized ‘boutique’ dealers, with showrooms of around 3000sqm. They won’t be so large in the UK. Gray reckons on around an acre of footprint, fitting the brand’s initial sales targets, and also reflecting the cost of land in the UK. ‘It is a unique issue for this country,’ he explained.
They will all be built to the same global standard, developed two years ago. Called ‘IREDI’ – Infiniti Retail Environment Design Initiative – the dealers are guaranteed to be dramatic and stand-out (the Infiniti ‘wall’ is said to be a particularly outstanding focal point, especially at night).
They will be more like luxury hotels than traditional car showrooms, with lots of light and natural materials. Synergies with the cars are not just coincidental: the whole design concept was signed off by the same guy responsible for the cars, too. Whether it’s a brochure, the car, the dealership, all have the same subliminal feel.
Infiniti interviewed premium customers, and discovered a key frustration was, with such a huge variety of model and trim choice on offer, the unlikeliness of the exact spec of car they’re looking for being in stock. Solution? A huge plasma screen, which ‘virtually’ shows the chosen trim and colour of car, with the chosen wheels… then, the customer can choose from 1.5-metre rectangular sections of leather, cover a seat in the showroom, replicating their choice of pew, too. ‘It’s something we’ve taken from high-end furniture shops,’ said a spokesman, and proof of the innovative thinking Infiniti is implementing.
Taking them through the process will be Infiniti staff following the ‘Total Ownership Experience’ philosophy. This is, says the brand, a promise to customers that they can buy their car in a welcoming environment free from pressure, with expert advice and freedom from worry afterwards. TOE, in short, is part of the brand’s DNA, underlining how crucial the experience is to Infiniti’s message and success. High-line stuff.
However, the challenge of having so few sites remains. How do you overcome this, when Audi and Mercedes have 10 times as many outlets, and BMW, 12 times? Work smarter, reckons Gray.
‘Look at IKEA – it is interesting where they have sites: it is not dissimilar to our plans. Obviously, they are more mature, but the model is similar. The initial level of investment is high, but this high cost of entry is offset by an enormous proportion of the population being able to easily access them. We will enlist our originating footprint in a similar way.’
There will be just one dealer in Scotland, though. Surely this is a problem? Gray admits the Glasgow-based dealer will demand huge distances from customers.
‘Here, in particular, we will have to operate cleverly,’ he says. ‘History shows people are prepared to travel to buy a car, not to get it serviced. We will therefore put great emphasis on looking after them once they have acquired.’
Gray says Infiniti will impose a strict programme of car collection, of chauffeuring services and other work-smart means of eliminating the issue of a small footprint. ‘We will simply take the problem away for customers,’ he added.
Gray says it is unusual for such a scheme to be offered generically too: ‘Individual dealers often look at the value of a customer before offering such services. With Infiniti, it will be standard.’
CUSTOMERS AND THE LUXURY MESSAGE
Customers will, of course, come predominately from the establishment. So that is indeed BMW, Mercedes and Audi, with the bulk of buyers coming from the Munich marque.
‘We are compared to BMW all the time: like them, we make either rear-drive or 4WD drivers’ cars,’ explained Gray.
‘Even so, we’re still surprised about where some are coming from. The volume will follow a standard distribution curve and, naturally, come from the established brands – but on the fringes, there are some real eye-openers.’
Price wise, Gray says Infiniti is up against a lot of extremely competent cars. Buyers who are spending this sort of money, he says, are very aware of what’s going on. Hence the decision to position Infiniti as a performance brand, with no car producing less than 300bhp, and no pesky four-cylinders diluting the message.
Diesels will follow, but not until the second phase of the launch, in 2010: the V6 unit will appear in the EX and FX, along with a Jaguar XF rival that is more Merc CLS than Audi A6 in appearance and style.
But it is not just customers who are going to be pampered. It sounds like Infiniti sales staff are in for a treat, too. ‘We plan to take staff away for initial training – we are running an event in Berlin, in September, where they will all stay in a five-star hotel. Indeed, all staff are to experience this, so when they’re back at the dealership they will understand what the luxury difference is, the types of customers they will experience and the exacting expectations they will have.
‘We want to raise awareness for what good looks like, reset what the perception of it is. That’s why all staff, including technicians, will get the same five-star treatment and experience.’
Gray says the service ramp-up will be made easier for those technicians as, obviously, Infiniti is starting from a parc of zero.
The service department will not be rushed off its feet, and this soft landing will help it perfect looking after customers. Increasingly, premium brands are operating service departments on volume car levels: Infiniti hopes to differentiate itself with a much more personal – and, so the thinking goes, higher – level of service.
AND FOR DEALERS?
The qualifier for dealer recruitment and the levels of customer service Gray expects them to offer is, simply, premium brand experience. As such, actual rules and guidelines are, despite what you may fear, few.
‘It is more about delivery than hugely exacting standards,’ he said. ‘We are keeping things simple: it is all about the execution.’
Look at the artists impressions of Infiniti’s centres, and you could be swayed into thinking costs will be massive. Gray refutes this: ‘Investment will be similar to any other premium brand – it’s not off the scale.’
Property acquisition is running in parallel with the launch: Gray says that if this was done sequential, it would take much longer. ‘We’re at an advanced stage here, but confidentially means I can’t say much more at the moment.’ Gray is keen not to jeopardise current plans. ‘But it is not over until the dealerships actually open.’ Indeed, if all of this sounds of interest, Infiniti may reciprocate. Gray admits he’s still open to proposals from those interested in carrying the Infiniti franchise.
Initially, Infiniti wanted to follow its European model, and recruit a single dealer group for the whole country. However, here again, the UK is different, so the decision was made to select multiple partners. However, says Gray: ‘We want to keep the number of partners to a minimum – this is healthy for the business. Therefore, we’re looking at multiples. But the drive distances for some outlets on the periphery are huge – Newcastle to Glasgow, for example, is three hours. Thus, some can sit on a freestanding basis. If someone has premium experience and the capability to add more business, there may be potential for discussions.’