Wealthy, beautiful, brand-conscious Vancouverites toasted the June opening of a glistening new Audi dealership built at cost of $25-million. The owners, the Dilawri Group, also celebrated a new "boutique" Infiniti store next door on Burrard Street, though with less fanfare. Everything about these two retail outlets speaks volumes about the divergent fortunes of Audi and Infiniti.
Audi's sales have almost tripled since 2004 in Canada, while Infiniti has been treading water. The two were neck-and-neck in Canada (2004 sales of 7,841 for Infiniti, 7,422 for Audi) a decade ago, yet last year Audi's sales hit 20,506, with Infiniti at 8,947. What happened?
Simple. Audi made a decades-long commitment to clear brand values expressed through products dating back to the early 1980s with the introduction of Quattro – the signature all-wheel-drive system synonymous with it.
Infiniti arrived in 1989 with a fuzzy brand launch that featured close-up shots of pebbles and streams. Since then, it has lacked signature designs and technologies that bring life to the brand. Until Infiniti settled on "Inspired Performance," no simple tag line summed it up.
Quattro, though, isn't a slogan or gimmick; it's Audi personified. All-wheel-drive cars didn't exist when Audi entered its first Quattro car into the World Rally Championship in 1981. Audi didn't just win, but dominated WRC events. Michele Mouton became an international driving sensation, the first woman to win a WRC even, and Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola racked up brand-building WRC championships.
The adage "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" has never more apt than with Audi. In June, Audi won its 13th race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a hybrid LMP1 prototype that speaks to the hybrid technology Audi is putting into the A3 Sportback e-tron and other new models. Before that, Audi boosted its showroom-ready diesels with triumphs at Le Mans races using diesel-powered race cars.
How important has Le Mans been to Audi's brand-building? When Audi started its commitment to Le Mans in 2000, annual global sales sat at about 650,000. Twelve Le Mans wins later, Audi's sales hit 1.58 million in 2013 and sales are up 11 per cent this year.
Infiniti, too, is involved in racing as the signature sponsor of the Infiniti Red Bull Formula One team. But it's hard to see the connection between Sebastian Vettel's F1 car and anything for sale in an Infiniti showroom.
Then there's the Audi R8 halo car launched in the fall of 2007. The R8 mimics the Le Mans race cars of the late 2000s. The car itself crystallized Audi in a single, sleek, high-tech, desirable sports car with an original price of $139,000 – relatively affordable for a supercar. What's the halo car at Infiniti? What car crystallizes Infiniti for buyers?
Essential to Audi's growth in Canada, meanwhile, has been a commitment to a level of independence from Audi's U.S. sales arm. Diego Ramos arrived here in 2005 as the first independent head of Audi Canada and set out on what he called his "big eyes, big ears, small mouth" fact-finding tour across Canada to visit Audi's dealers.
He said his role at Audi was to be "Mr. Canada" – to make sure Canada gets a broader range of models Canadians want from Germany, not hand-me-downs from the United States. He and the two Audi Canada presidents since have been focused on Audi's brand values, championing Canada to Germany, and building the dealer network with stores like the Dilawri's on Burrard.
Perhaps this lesson has sunk in at Infiniti Canada, which earlier this year brought in Stephen McDonnell as managing director. McDonnell spent 18 years with BMW/Mini and knows the luxury game.
That's good, but is Infiniti prepared to make an Audi-like, possibly decades-long commitment to the brand? To borrow from author W.P. Kinsella, if Infiniti builds the brand, they (buyers) will come. Audi proved it. The catch is that it may take a decade or more for those buyers to show up.
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