By David Thomas on August 4, 2011
Celebrities’ lending their voices for commercials has been a huge trend in the automotive world the past few years. Hyundai made a splash getting Jeff Bridges as its gruff-but-soulful pitchman. Mercedes-Benz’s new cars are pushed by Jon Hamm, who portrays ’60s ad exec Don Draper in “Mad Men.” And Chevy uses everyman comedian Tim Allen to sell everything from big trucks to electric Volts.
A few weeks ago when I heard on the radio the unmistakable voice of underground music icon Henry Rollins talking about Infiniti’s latest sales event, I assumed the Japanese luxury brand decided to follow the trend and simply picked someone with more “attitude.”
Rollins is Infiniti’s voice, but he wasn’t handpicked because of his considerable persona. It was his voice, with no name attached, that won him the job.
Ben Poore, Infiniti’s vice president of the Americas, told me last week that they weren’t looking at celebrities at all when they found Rollins. “Our first intention was to get the voice. To get the spirit with an interesting tonality. It had to be authoritative and at the same time stand out,” Poore said. “We listened to hundreds of voices, but they weren’t pushing the board enough. I think the agency was a little afraid to bring [stronger voices].”
In the next round of anonymous audio clips, one finally stood out to Poore and Infiniti.
“As soon as I heard it, I knew it was right on for what we were trying to say,” Poore said. The fact that this happened to be Rollins — singer of the influential 1980s punk band Black Flag, musician on the first Lollapalooza tour (way back in 1991), author of over a dozen books, spoken-word artist and TV host — was “a huge bonus.”
You’d think revealing the man behind the voice would change Infiniti’s approach to its commercials, but for the foreseeable future, Rollins will remain just the voice on the commercials. There are no plans for him to star in TV ads or appear at auto shows, as Bridges has done for Hyundai.
As for the ads themselves, Rollins has been delivering mostly straightforward fare since signing on in March. He talks about some nice attributes of the car as it drives around vacant city streets, sliding around. Typical stuff.
But last month, Infiniti added two new commercials, called “Lullaby” and “Spa,” that take direct pokes at chief competitor Lexus. Infiniti wants to be seen as the performance alternative when car shoppers think of Japanese luxury.
“There’s no room for a subtle shade of gray [when positioning our brand]. We are this, and they are that. It needs to be very black and white. When you buy an Infiniti, you’re moving away from the status quo,” Poore said.
Rollins certainly isn’t the status quo, and Infiniti is in need of shaking things up.
While Infiniti’s products are generally well-reviewed, sales for the first half of the year have been flat. The company’s EX and FX crossovers haven’t seen the same level of success of the brand’s cars, and although the unsightly full-size Qx56 SUV has sold better than expected, the $60,000 price tag makes it a low-volume seller.
Luckily for Infiniti, competitors Lexus and Acura aren’t setting the world on fire, with sales down 18.6% and 1.4%, respectively, so far this year. German brands BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz are in better shape, with sales up 18%, 15.4% and 6.5%, respectively, through June.
The release of a new Infiniti three-row crossover named JX may prove pivotally important to the brand when it debuts sometime in 2012.
We wonder what Rollins will have to say about it.
Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David