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Nissan's global ambitions for Infiniti start in China

Nissan hopes to increase Infiniti's market share in China with its first-ever compact SUV, the QX30.

TOKYO -- Nissan Motor is hoping a new focus on China will help breathe fresh life into its 30-year-old Infiniti luxury brand and allow it to shake off its dependence on the American market.

"Infiniti had a record year in 2015," said Roland Krueger, president of Infiniti Motor, the brand's Hong Kong headquarters.

According to the company, Infiniti was the fastest-growing premium brand in China for the second year in a row in 2015. Nissan began producing Infiniti models in China in 2014, and the brand has been steadily gaining ground there since, despite growing concern about an economic slowdown. In June, Infiniti sales hit a record high in terms of the number of units.

But high growth rates are a byproduct of the brand's still-minuscule presence in the country. Infiniti boasted a mere 2.2% share of China's luxury car market in 2015. Though this is 0.5 percentage point higher than the year before, it is far smaller than that of European rivals like BMW and Audi, which enjoy strong popularity in the country.

In a medium-term business plan published in 2011, dubbed Nissan Power 88, the automaker targeted a 10% share of the global luxury car market by the year through March 2017. That target is looking increasingly difficult to meet.

In the U.S., which the company sees as a core market for Infiniti, the brand had a 6.4% share in 2015. But its share was just 0.7% in Europe and the Middle East, and 1.3% in Asia and Oceania.

Shifting focus

One reason for stagnant growth is heavy dependence on the Americas -- 65% of Infinitis are sold there, despite the automaker having operations spread across over 50 countries and regions -- and its U.S.-centric marketing strategy.

Infiniti increased its U.S. market share by responding to consumer demand for quality and better after-sales services from U.S. automakers. The brand now has an established foothold in the U.S. alongside Toyota Motor's Lexus and Honda Motor's Acura.

But success with American drivers does not guarantee popularity elsewhere. For instance, the average age of Infiniti owners in the U.S. is around 50, while in China it is some 15 years younger and they are mostly men. It will be difficult for Nissan to attract more Chinese consumers with its current Infiniti lineup, which caters to Americans' penchant for large vehicles.

Nissan President Carlos Ghosn has said Infiniti is at a turning point, and indicated the company plans to expand its lineup to include more compact models in 2016 and beyond. Nissan also plans to carefully tailor its Infiniti models to local markets. In China, for instance, the QX30, a compact SUV set to debut in Europe first, will be equipped with an engine that qualifies for a tax credit for owners of compact cars.

Nissan executives who came up with the Infiniti brand in 1985 -- two years before its debut -- sought advice on customer experience from FedEx, a major delivery service provider in the U.S., and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, a luxury hotel operator based in Canada, among others. Perhaps it is time once again for Nissan to learn from other companies -- not just automakers but those in other fields, too -- how to turn American success into global competitiveness.

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