Audi of America boss de Nysschen defects to Infiniti

Sometimes it’s easy to forget there are other things going on in the world of autos than Joel Ewanick shaking up General Motors’ marketing plan.

Such as Audi veteran Johan de Nysschen quitting the marque he has championed for 19 years and heading for rival luxury brand Infiniti.

De Nysschen’s decision to quit Audi of America, which he has steered with great success for 7 years, created considerable industry speculation last week. Putsched or moving on – and why?

It now turns out he will be relocating to Hong Kong where, as a senior vice-president of Nissan – which owns Infiniti, he will spearhead an attempted global revival of the trailing luxury car brand.

De Nysschen’s departure from Audi was a surprise, not least because the North American unit has been performing so well recently. Annual sales exceeded 100,000 units for the time two years ago; this year, Audi’s share of the US luxury car market has risen from 5.3% to 10%. In May alone, Audi’s US sales climbed 15% to 52,494 cars.

But perhaps that’s the point: de Nysschen likes a challenge. And with Infiniti he’s certainly getting one.

In the US, Infiniti is the brand that most closely rivals Audi in sales performance. During 2010, Infiniti narrowly outsold Audi – 103,411 vehicles compared with 101,629. But there the resemblance ends. Last year, Infiniti trailed Audi at 98,461 to 117,561. The immediate reason was production problems stemming from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The more strategic issue is an ageing and increasingly unimpressive product line.

Globally Infiniti sales, at about 200,000, are a fraction of Audi’s 1.3 million. Infiniti has been striving to catch up, with a technology deal involving Mercedes-Benz and the promise of an extended vehicle line-up of 10, in place of the existing 8.

Clearly Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has been making all sorts of promises to de Nysschen about imminently improved product performance. Without that, it seems unlikely that Infiniti will be able to charge anything like the price of a BMW, Mercedes or Audi any time soon.

The establishment of a new global Infiniti headquarters in Hong Kong – doors opened last month – is an interesting declaration of intent in itself.

Infiniti was once exclusive to the USA, but is now being marketed in 46 countries. Significantly, China is Infiniti’s second largest market after the USA.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.