Infiniti: If At First You Don't Succeed...

William R. Bruce is clearly pleased. He's standing on the edge of a soundstage in Hollywood watching commercials for the new Infiniti Q45 sedan being shot. He has already seen rough versions of the ads that will kick off the campaign on Apr. 23, and liked them. For the vice-president and general manager of Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Infiniti luxury-car division, there's only one sour note: Among the 30 or so people milling around the huge set, several sport black T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the lighting subcontractor--which just happens to be Lexus Lighting.

Few could miss the irony. Ever since Infiniti launched its first automobile, in November, 1989, it has been in the shadow of Lexus, the luxury-car arm of arch-rival Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus' conservatively styled LS400, launched three months earlier, became an immediate hit. But Infiniti opted for a distinctive, love-it-or-hate-it design that relegated the Q45 to a niche. By stressing performance, Infiniti turned off those drivers looking for opulence and comfort. At the end of March, Infiniti had only a 3.9% share of the U.S. luxury market, compared with Lexus' 7.7% and Mercedes' 4.5%. With parent company Nissan suffering $250 million in operating losses due to problems at home, Infiniti is under pressure to do better.

The 1994 Q45 is designed to move Infiniti into the mainstream of the market, with more than 70 enhancements, such as a chrome grille and softer leather seats, which are intended to push the traditional luxury buyer's buttons (table). And the advertising represents a sharp change from earlier campaigns. "It's more than the launch of a new car," Bruce says. "In a sense, because the Q is our flagship, it's the relaunch of Infiniti."

joke fodder. In fact, Infiniti is spending as much on the new campaign as it did to launch the original Q45. The first Infiniti ads, created by Boston agency Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc., featured loving shots of haystacks in a field and ripples in a pond. The spots had impact: In Top 10 brand-awareness surveys, consumers kept citing them for more than a year after they stopped running. But the campaign became fodder for jokes by Johnny Carson and David Letterman because it ran for months without ever showing a car. "A big part of buying a car is 'How will my friends and neighbors react to it?'" says Richard C. Zien of Mendelsohn/Zien Advertising Inc. "Despite the fact that it's a great car, very few people are secure enough to buy a $40,000 product that has become the subject of jokes."

Hill Holliday's ensuing campaigns sought the safer ground of winding roads, orange traffic cones, and beautiful women. They hammered home the performance theme--and the spots were lost in the clutter of lookalike car ads.

Last November, Infiniti unceremoniously dumped Hill Holliday and gave Chiat/Day Advertising Inc. the account, probably worth $90 million a year in billings. The West Coast shop had proven itself by handling all the advertising for Infiniti's sister Nissan division, an estimated $250 million account, for six years. Now, Chiat/Day had less than six months to pull together a huge project: producing nearly 20 commercials for Infiniti's three models. Because the deal specified that he couldn't raid the Nissan account team, Steve Goldman, the Chiat/Day senior vice-president in charge of the Infiniti project, had to start from scratch. He hired and trained 76 new people before yearend.

November and December were filled with frenzied meetings, as the fledgling team tried to absorb as much as possible about Infiniti and its market. The agency brought in Yankelovich Partners Inc., whose surveys showed that rich car buyers want to be seen as having made the smart choice. A "war room" in the converted warehouse that serves as Chiat/Day headquarters in Venice, Calif., was the site of weekly meetings with Infiniti staffers.

NERVOUS. The seminal idea for Chiat/Day's campaign emerged during an intensive course at Infiniti's Carson (Calif.) headquarters for the agency team--an abbreviated version of the weeklong training required for all Infiniti dealers' employees. Chiat President and Senior Creative Director Lee Clow was struck by how simply the trainer, John Jaeger, could explain the cars' features. Clow invited him back to Chiat/Day to further an idea: Why not present the cars, and the company, in a series of individual ads that each highlighted a single Infiniti feature?

That idea got lost in January, when Chiat/Day turned the team loose to develop the "creative," the part of a marketing strategy that shows up as commercials. "We started going down four or five paths and getting nowhere," Goldman says. For example, they toyed with the idea of a campaign that talked about the experience of owning an Infiniti but rejected it as too philosophical and fuzzy. They considered testimonials from owners who had traded in competing luxury cars but realized that testimonials can't be used to introduce a new car. After a session with agency head Jay Chiat, it was back to Clow's simple-story approach.

On Feb. 1, Chiat/Day showed the idea to Bruce. It made him nervous. He had been expecting several ideas, but only one was presented. He made the ad team return later that week to show its other ideas and explain why they had been rejected. And he was adamant about having at least one ad showing all three cars in the Infiniti line, largely to imbue the $20,450 G20 sedan with the aura of its larger, costlier brethren.

Clow patiently explained the difficulties of describing three models in a 30-second commercial, but Bruce wouldn't budge. Finally, Clow leaped out of his chair to say: "O.K., the first commercial will be"--here he put on an announcer-like voice--"the president of Infiniti wants you to understand that we have three lovely cars to choose from." The room broke up with laughter, and Bruce approved the single-feature campaign. That set the agency off on a whirlwind two months of focus groups and repeated presentations to Infiniti regional managers, dealer organizations, and ever-higher levels of Nissan management.

MOUTHPIECE. The look of the campaign is sparse: a dramatically lit car on a sweeping expanse of white background. Chiat/Day wanted to use an actor as a guide to the car, someone to take the viewer around it and explain its features. But it didn't want a celebrity who would steal the limelight. Most important, it needed someone who would sound sophisticated and intelligent yet could interject warmth and even a little humor into the ads.

It took more than a month to come up with Jonathan Pryce, and Chiat/Day didn't get the final approval to sign him until Mar. 31, just five days before its marathon shooting began. Pryce, the male lead in the musical Miss Saigon, most recently played Henry R. Kravis in the Home Box Office cable-TV movie Barbarians at the Gate.

As the LBO king, Pryce was haughty and aloof. But here, from Bruce's vantage point on the edge of the soundstage, he is witty and charming. Today's shoot, which will air next month, highlights the Q45's Bose stereo system. Pryce moves from place to place in the car, remarking that the speakers sound so good there's not a bad seat in the house. Then, getting out, he does an exaggerated dance step to the mambo music. And, in a subtle spoof of the car's original image, he intones: "After all, the word performance has more than one meaning." Bruce loved it. Perhaps more important, it even got a few chuckles from the guys from Lexus Lighting.

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