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Milestones: 20 Years of the Infiniti Luxury Brand

Nissan's “rocks and trees” marque along with Lexus and Acura established upscale Japanese cars.

by on Nov.12, 2009

Twenty years ago, Infiniti opened for business in the U.S. with 51 dealers and two models sharing the decidedly different looking showroom based on a Japanese Zen-like atmosphere that emphasized textures and materials and subdued colors.

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Even though the V8 powered Q45 was a competitive car, sales were slow.

Hence, the “rocks and trees” label that journalists used as shorthand for the new, unusual marketing approach.

The dealerships did have a different feel to them — with a reception desk, open offices and an emphasis on sales and customer service – that  in retrospect, they foreshadowed luxury-retailing concepts that prevail today.

However at the time, rocks and trees detracted from establishing the creditability of the new products, the very core of establishing creditability.

The Infiniti brand has since expanded to the mid-east, Russia and China, 35 nations in all, but in its home Japanese market the cars are still sold as Nissan models.

Infiniti, as were competing Lexus and Acura luxury brands from Toyota and Honda, was actually the product of “voluntary restraints” on Japanese exports to the U.S. market during the 1980s.

The flagship Infiniti Q45 – a huge, V8-powered rear-wheel drive sedan with four-wheel steering was successful with reviewers, including this one. The sales problem, I opine, was that unlike the Lexus LS 400, Infiniti did not just clone a Mercedes-Benz.

The vast majority of the buyers were looking for a bargain Benz, with Japanese quality, which the $35,000 Lexus LS 400 readily provided. So, even though Infiniti was a competitive car, sales were slow. The Lexus surged ahead.

The planned volume product the V6 engine, rear-drive M30 coupe was underpowered, and unlovely,  and therefore unloved by potential buyers who avoided it.

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The beginning of the cockpit approach to interior design, isolating the driver from the passenger.

Critics attributed the sales failure of both models to the overt Japanese approach, although Infiniti stuck with it for a number of years before a more successful product-oriented marketing emerged.

This allowed Lexus to build a commanding lead, and with the introduction of the LS 300 crossover SUV, Lexus catapulted to the number one spot in all U.S. luxury sales, much to the surprise of long established German, English and U.S. luxury brands. This spot Lexus still occupies to this day, of course.

“A dream that started 20 years ago in the United States is now the blueprint for a global luxury automotive brand,” claims Toru Saito, Corporate Vice President in charge of Global Infiniti Business Unit.

“In the beginning, Infiniti was an innovator in design, performance, technology and in taking care of our customers throughout the entire ownership experience – just as it is today,” Saito says.

Looking ahead, the Infiniti product line will be joined by a third-generation Infiniti M sedan in spring 2010, followed by an all-new Infiniti QX SUV in summer 2010. After that, Infiniti recently announced its first-ever hybrid – the 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid and a future Infiniti EV.

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2 Responses to “Milestones: 20 Years of the Infiniti Luxury Brand”

  1. dan says:

    I think Rocks and Trees was their first TV commercial. Few understood what they were trying to communicate, I think it was the first esoteric car commercial. Lots of ‘what was that all about”.

  2. Ken Zino says:

    Dan, sometimes before your time is too early…