To Infiniti and beyond: Luxury brand bouncing back

After spending the last 18 years with Germany’s BMW/MINI, this past February Stephen McDonnell assumed the new role of managing director, Infiniti Canada.

With Nissan’s luxury marque in a full-on rebranding and product offensive, McDonnell has a lot on his plate over the next few years. We recently had a chance to talk with him and get his thoughts about his new role and Infiniti’s future in Canada:

Car Review: 2014 Infiniti Q50

John LeBlanc: What’s the best way to explain what your job is to our readers?

Stephen McDonnell: My role as managing director is something all-new for Infiniti in Canada. And it ties into the global strategic direction of Infiniti worldwide, based in Hong Kong. For starters, Infiniti has more autonomy from parent Nissan and is operated more as a separate business. Probably the easiest way to describe my role is to say I’m responsible for “everything with Infiniti in Canada.” That means not only sales and marketing, but also after-sales, dealer network development, product planning — everything from A to Z.

Stephen McDonnell, managing director of Infiniti Canada.

Stephen McDonnell, managing director of Infiniti Canada.
Handout, Infiniti Canada

JL: What’s sitting at the top of your very long “to-do” list?

SM: Are there areas we need to focus on? Yes. There are certainly areas that are of a higher priority than others. But the brand is well established in Canada, and that’s borne out by the sales success we’ve seen recently. Looking at Infiniti sales in Canada to date, through to the end of April, sales are up 20%. And in April alone, we saw a gain of 38%, which is very strong for us. Ten consecutive months of growth, in fact. So I would say business is good.

JL: What will this new autonomy from Nissan allow you to do with the Infiniti brand?

SM: The first thing is you have the ability to focus more. The new autonomy is a key component of the future plans for Infiniti. It started with the launch of the Q50 sedan in 2013. In regards to design and direction, it defines where Infiniti is headed. And it’s been very successful for us. To date, Q50 sales are up 80% over the outgoing G Series sedan. We also have the Q70 sedan refresh this year, and the long wheelbase version coming later. We’re also going to bring a Q70 Sport edition. Plus there’s the refresh of the QX80 — our large SUV — and a Limited edition of that model as well.

JL: Can we exact to see some new types of Infinitis?

SM: Oh yes. When we move into late-2015 and early-2016, and that’s when you’ll see a very strong product offensive. For example, if you look at the luxury market coverage, Infiniti competes in about 55% of the market today. By the end of 2016 and 2017, with our new product offensive, we’ll hope to cover almost 90% of the market. And these new products are not just replacements of existing models, but products that are launching into segments that Infiniti doesn’t compete in today.

2015 Infiniti Q70L

2015 Infiniti Q70L
Handout, Infiniti

JL: What are the plans until the new models arrive?

SM: Well, we still have to manage our business in between. When it comes to the retail side, of our 36 Infiniti retailers in Canada, 50% are brand exclusive — in other words, they have a clear separation of their customer touchpoints from a Nissan dealership. Obviously, to be a tier-one luxury player, that level of exclusivity needs to be 100% across the network. By mid-2015 we should be over 70%, and that will also help us prepare us for the new product offensive.

JL: What about the redefining of the Infiniti brand?

SM: What the customer will see is the strengthening of the brand. It’s interesting, because our studies about awareness show that the Infiniti brand is on the same level as the strongest luxury brands in Canada. So awareness is not the issue. We know as an organization that we build luxury performance automobiles that are defined by seductive design and industry-leading technology. But the challenge will be increasing the familiarity of these as hallmarks of the Infiniti brand to the Canadian luxury car buyer.

JL: One of Infiniti’s most visible partnerships is with the Red Bull Formula One racing team. How is that helping the brand?

SM: The relationship has reinforced the perception of performance as a hallmark for Infiniti. The effort isn’t just about competing in Formula One. There’s also the benefit of having a driver like the current and four-time World Driving Champion, Sebastian Vettel, as Infiniti’s Director of Performance. Having that level of expertise has had a very direct influence on the development of the upcoming products to make sure they are “Infiniti Approved,” so to speak.

JL: Finally, what gets you the most excited coming into the office each day?

SM: As you know, I spent some time at another established luxury brand. So what’s got me really excited about my new role at Infiniti is the possibility to move the direction of the company more than just one centimetre at a time from centre. And that’s where I get excited; to see the new products and the folks in the organization giving you a clean sheet of paper to say, “Let’s see if we can really make a difference and move the needle further.”

Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing RB9.

Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing RB9.
Mark Thompson, Getty Images

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