When Nissan showed its turbo-powered “200GT-t” Skyline to the Japanese media today, I did not need to speak Japanese to understand what they are driving at. “Premium” was about every second word spoken during today’s launch at Nissan’s waterfront test track in Oppama. Seeking to spice up its earnings with a little of that secret Audi sauce, Nissan wants to shed its commoner image and enter the rarefied strata of the premium car market. If you think that’s a joke, you should have been there (as I was) when Audi tried the same, in the last century. Against all odds, and many decades later, Audi succeeded. Volkswagen’s premium brand sold 1.6 million units globally last year, 16 percent of the Volkswagen Group total. When it comes to profits, however, Audi is the biggest contributor to Volkswagen AG’s bursting coffers. That gets automakers thinking.
Nissan is not alone in its desire to sell cars with extra pricing power under the hood. Whenever quarterly numbers are announced, the world’s auto executives want to be like Audi.
Two weeks ago, Fiat’s Marchionne said he would double profits by 2018, and that he would perform the miracle with upscale models. Marchionne is joined by managers of Ford. “Ford wants to steal customers from premium carmakers with higher-end versions of its mass-market models as it tries to end years of losses in Europe,” Reuters reported a few days ago, and execs at all of Germany’s premium brands said that this was the best joke they had heard all day.
Nobody knows the arduous path to premium better than Johan de Nysschen, CEO of Nissan’s upscale Infiniti brand. Two years ago, de Nysschen told me in his office in Hong Kong that premium brand customers are a very tough crowd, that they are “very conservative and very brand loyal,” and that they are chased by far too many automakers. De Nysschen has plenty of hands-on experience with that finicky clientele. He had been in charge of Audi in increasingly important markets: South Africa, Japan, finally the U.S., where de Nysschen was CEO of Audi of America since 2004.
Whenever automakers say they want to be like Audi, they forget that Audi’s path from rags to riches was a very long one. When Audi was sold in the mid 60s to Volkswagen, Volkswagen did not want another brand. VW wanted to have Audi’s factories, for making the lowest of the low, the Beetle. Daimler, the owner of Audi, was more than happy to unload loss-making Audi.
In the early 70’s, when Volkswagen had run out of luck, and air-cooled cars customers did not want, it was Audi engineers who saved the company, and who laid the foundation to Volkswagen’s surprising success. Golf, Scirocco, Polo, Passat, all were fathered in Ingolstadt. Which did not keep Wolfsburg from treating Audi like their step-sister’s bastard child for nearly two more decades.
Through the 80’s, Audi’s image in Germany was worse than that of Opel. Opel was a blue-collar brand, which drew the hardworking masses. Audi back then was said to appeal to a much smaller, but equally cash-poor clientele, namely that of bookkeepers. Audi had a few technological break-throughs, notably full-time all-wheel drive, but they failed to excite.
I am often asked what Audi’s secret of success is. I always answer: “Persistence, hard work, and Ferdinand Piech.” The Porsche scion was an engineer at Audi, he advanced to chief of the Ingolstadt company, and used it as a stepping-stone to become CEO, and much later owner, of Volkswagen. When Piech became CEO of Volkswagen in 1993, his power base was still in Ingolstadt. Piech had to keep the “Audianer,” as that backwards Bavarian tribe was called in Wolfsburg, happy. And he did.
Nearly 30 years after Audi was bought, a slow shift was set in motion. Audi was moved upscale, always prodded by a relentless Piech who demanded a “Höherpositionierung” (up-positioning) from his engineers and managers, which the impatient Piech called “die Lehmschicht“, the layer of clay that blocks everything. Getting the sentiment through the sediment took more than another decade. When Audi launched its all-aluminum A8 in 1994, it received a lot of applause, but very few customers. Standard comment: “Nice car, really. But for ten to twenty thousand more, I get a Siebener.” The destructive power of brands. Audi’s inflection point was only very recently, at the beginning of the new millennium. Its escalating sales volumes were helped by functionaries and plutocrats in a rapidly rising China. Audi was in China not due to a grand strategy, they just happened to be there.
All that hard work, and the luck of being there in the right time, would have been for naught, would Piech not have persisted in wasting money. Soon after his arrival in Wolfsburg, Piech demanded strict “Markentrennung,” or brand separation. It wasn’t just brands that were separated. Giving “Erbsenzähler” (bean counters in Volkswagen parlance) heart palpitations, just about every function was duplicated, down to separate parts distribution operations that distributed mostly identical parts, and down to field staff that visited mostly identical dealers who grudgingly had built separate show rooms.
The many Audi-adepts among the world’s automakers don’t have the 40 years it took to move their brand upscale. They also don’t have an authoritarian Piech who insisted on a draconian apartheid of brands and functions, come hell or low earnings.
Today’s Skyline is one example for lackadaisical brand separation. Everywhere else in the world ( well,. not really,) the car is known as the Infiniti Q50. In Japan, it is known as the Nissan Skyline, much to the horror of the basement-dwelling youth in America, and the blogs that cater to that segment. Their image is based on virtual seat time in Gran Turismo and Fast and Furious, they think, and write, that the current Skyline blasphemes what they have in their minds. Which, apparently, are the Skylines of the Summer of Love Generation. A line-up of vintage Skylines was thankfully provided today by a Nissan in touch with its heritage. It shows a Skyline shedding its badboy dragstrip image somewhere around the late 80’s, early 90’s, and a Skyline in full executive class get-up about 10 years ago. Which, not so coincidentally, mirrors Audi’s long timeline a bit.
What is missing is Piech’s Markentrennung. The front of the JDM Nissan Skyline has an Infiniti badge, brand blasphemy of the worst kind. Even in 1973, when the Audi 80 was rebadged as a Passat, they took the four rings off and replaced it with Volkswagen’s lollipop.