Dissected: Lotus-Based Infiniti Emerg-E Sports-Car Concept - Feature

This is Fatuous at Best, Disastrous At Worst

The renaming is Johan de Nysschen’s first big, visible move since taking the CEO spot at Infiniti in July. Lured from Audi, de Nysschen’s charge is to reposition Infiniti from Acura-level purveyor of leathery Nissans to a global luxury brand that can rake in money from beyond the borders of NAFTA. One needn’t squint to see the parallels between Audi’s model names and what de Nysschen just announced for Infiniti. Was it impossible to resist the temptation to say Infiniti has a car that’s ten times as good as Audi’s Q7?

Even in the many countries where Nissan is launching the Infiniti brand from a completely blank slate, this is a questionable plan for all but the most obsessive-compulsive among us. But with cars, branding, marketing, and mental association already established in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Infiniti is giving itself—fine, we’ll say it—an infinite uphill battle.

A product lineup with extremely similar names, differentiated only by common, round, evenly spaced numbers is virtually impossible to remember. This problem isn’t unique to Infiniti’s new scheme—how many times have you heard someone say “the Lexus SUV” rather than RX350—but these are especially poorly chosen model names. The industry’s proclivity for groupthink has also given us a situation in which Infiniti will sell a QX60 crossover against Volvo’s XC60, the BMW X6, and the upcoming Audi Q6.

The generally car-aware public, potential customers, current owners (who are de facto brand ambassadors), and sales staff will have a difficult time retaining any lasting impression about Infiniti’s products. Any name recognition and equity that Infiniti has built for the G and FX in particular during the past few years is now vapor. Speaking tonight, de Nysschen said “We will have to explain to customers why they will no longer be able to buy a G or an FX,” even though essentially the same products still exist.

When Lincoln Marked Itself to Death

This way of thinking is pervasive in the industry. Ford’s Lincoln brand—which, unlike Infiniti, hasn’t had a truly exciting product since the LS—has never recovered from Elena Ford’s push to emulate the successful Mark-number line by calling every Lincoln an MK-something. That switchover, too, included an on-the-fly name change for a car, meaning dealers were selling Zephyrs one model year and face-lifted MKZs the next.

In another heritage play, Volkswagen tried rebranding the fifth-gen Golf as the Rabbit in the U.S. The word “Rabbit” never appeared on the cars, with chrome rabbit symbols on the tailgate the only indication that VW, too, thought confusing customers was a route to sales. It wasn’t, and VW returned to calling its hatchback the Golf when the sixth-gen car arrived a few years later. Make no mistake, if this toxically ineffective thinking had spread to Silicon Valley, Apple would be selling IIE-10 and IIE-20 phones and tablets—and probably not in big numbers.

As part of today’s announcement, Infiniti highlighted the nobility of “Q” models in its lineage, right back to the Q45. Whether the Q45 was an exceptional sports sedan in its day or has been elevated to legend in posthumous mythmaking, it doesn’t matter now: The Q45′s reputation is sterling. In that car was proof that Infiniti could compete with BMW’s finest sports sedans. Now, in an era when BMW sells a Z4 sDrive35is, isn’t it appropriate that Infiniti respond with its own abstruse naming scheme?

By Justin Berkowitz