It went BMW, In—initi… glory? Karim Habib talks

In initi’s new de­sign boss Karim Habib ex­plains why he left BMW to help rein­vent Nis­san’s pre­mium brand – and why a big hit is now vi­tal

CAR (UK) - - Contents -

IT WOULD BE an un­der­state­ment to say eye­brows were raised when Karim Habib quit the com­fort of BMW’s de­sign di­rec­tor role in Jan­uary 2017 to reap­pear in July at Nis­san’s peren­ni­ally un­der­per­form­ing pre­mium brand In­finiti. Some­thing was up at BMW Group back then – sev­eral high-pro­file de­sign­ers had al­ready left be­fore Habib dur­ing 2016 – but did the Le­banese-born, Cana­dian-raised de­sign star need to go all the way to Ja­pan to es­cape? Were his feet re­ally that itchy in Mu­nich, where his de­sign hits in­cluded the 2007 Con­cept CS, 2015 M2 and 2016 Vi­sion Next 100 Con­cept?

Habib, now 48, sighs and pauses a while be­fore an­swer­ing: ‘There are cer­tain mo­ments that are frus­trat­ing, but I’m an adult and have seen much worse. Re­ally, if it was not In­finiti I wouldn’t have changed. In­finiti of­fered me some­thing I didn’t have: the chance to be part of the re­birth of a brand and de­sign dif­fer­ently. The po­ten­tial to make some­thing out of this brand could be the most re­ward­ing thing I’ve ever done.’

The brand turns 30 in 2019 and is cer­tainly in need of a re­birth, hav­ing bumped along for most of those years as an also-ran pre­mium player be­hind Lexus in per­ceived qual­ity and sales suc­cess. In­finiti reg­is­tered 246,492 units glob­ally in 2017 but most were in the US (168,740), while Toy­ota’s up­mar­ket mar­que recorded 668,505 world­wide. In­finiti sales re­main low in Europe (16,625), just break­ing through in China (48,408) and the brand is still not avail­able in its mother coun­try.

There’s a pat­tern here: Ja­panese com­pa­nies want their lux­ury brands to be­come es­tab­lished over­seas first. Toy­ota waited years be­fore in­tro­duc­ing the Lexus badge to Ja­pan, Honda barely uses

the Acura name in Ja­pan de­spite its long suc­cess in the US. Habib feels that In­finiti sell­ing in Ja­pan is ‘in­evitable’ although there is no con­crete plan yet, and con­cedes that the brand needs a break­through prod­uct to match the kind of in­no­va­tion that saw In­finiti in­vent the sporty SUV coupe seg­ment with the 2002 FX well be­fore any ri­vals.

‘We do need a hit record and that needs to be the QX50. It was done be­fore I ar­rived by Al­fonso Al­baisa [now head of Nis­san group de­sign] and I think it’s a very good pack­age,’ he reck­ons.

Sales of the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion mid-size SUV are just start­ing in the US but it won’t ar­rive in Europe un­til 2019. It re­flects the mat­u­ra­tion of In­finiti’s de­sign and a slight up­ward curve in the brand’s for­tunes – 2017 sales were up seven per cent on 2016.

Habib’s job is to build on that mo­men­tum and cre­ate the next gen­er­a­tion. ‘I don’t want it to sound like a spiel,’ he says, well aware that de­sign­ers can of­ten sound vague, ver­bose or both, with or with­out the mar­ket­ing depart­ment’s help.

‘We fo­cus a lot on how we de­sign “form”,’ he says, ‘but we need to un­der­stand we have a role in how cus­tomers ex­pe­ri­ence the prod­uct too. Not just by look­ing at it, but how they live with it.’

The first hint of that di­rec­tion was the Q In­spi­ra­tion shown in Jan­uary 2018 at the Detroit show, but as Habib had joined the pre­vi­ous July, the con­cept was well ad­vanced and he only had in­flu­ence on ‘re­work­ing pro­por­tions, de­tails, graph­ics and readapt­ing the in­te­rior’.

That con­cept is about cre­at­ing an ‘en­rich­ing’ ex­pe­ri­ence and em­bod­ies the first of four brand at­tributes In­finiti is push­ing (all be­gin­ning with the let­ter E). The sec­ond is ‘en­abling’, us­ing tech­nol­ogy to help users do things more eas­ily and will be re­flected in In­finiti’s 2019 Detroit con­cept. ‘En­gag­ing’ is all about mak­ing the car more cap­ti­vat­ing to drive. The fi­nal E – ‘en­chant­ing’ – is by Habib’s own ad­mis­sion more ab­stract. ‘I still don’t know how we are go­ing to do this,’ he says, smil­ing, ‘but I re­ally would like us to achieve that mo­ment when some­thing is cre­ated and the cus­tomer goes “how did they do that?”’

Along­side all that con­cep­tual brand po­si­tion­ing, pro­duc­tion car re­al­i­ties loom. The first de­sign Habib has had real in­flu­ence on ar­rives in 2020 (he’s not di­vulging de­tails) but what­ever it looks, feels and func­tions like, you can be sure he’ll have put a lot of cre­ativ­ity into the process. In­finiti is lucky to have him, and through his de­sign ten­ure may yet gain the clearer iden­tity and as­so­ci­ated sales the mar­que needs and craves.

GUY BIRD

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