Jon Ikeda and the Authenticity of Acura

Designers imagine not only what vehicles should look like inside and out, but they also creatively think about the nature of the world, the environment, that those vehicles will exist in.

Designers look at the world differently than the rest of us do.

Yes, they see what we see. The cars and trucks and Apple products and Ubers and fashion and Netflix and all the rest.

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But they see what we don’t see. Yet. Their job is to think about the future, about what things will look like five or 10 or more years from now. They imagine not only what vehicles should look like inside and out, but they also creatively think about the nature of the world, the environment, that those vehicles will exist in.

So if you think about how they have to play automotive chess several moves in advance, this is a characteristic that is most valuable to have in a top automotive executive.

And it has been tried.

In July 2009, shortly after the bankruptcy filing (evidentially no one saw that future coming) GM named one of its top designers, Bryan Nesbitt, head of Cadillac. That gig didn’t last long as Nesbitt went back to design in March 2010.

What was then still Chrysler tried it in October 2009, when Ralph Gilles, the man who will always be remembered for the 300C, was named president and CEO of Dodge. That lasted until June 2011.

A more recent example, and one that seems to have legs, is Jon Ikeda, vice president and general manager of the Acura Division of American Honda. He took on the position in July 2015. Ikeda, who joined Honda in 1989, had been fully immersed in Honda design culture, even spending six years in Japan. He’d worked on the designs of not only cars (e.g., 2001 Civic Coupe; 2004 Acura TL), but even on the creation of the Acura Design Studio, which opened in 2007.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to spend some time talking with Ikeda about how he and his colleagues are trying to better establish Acura in the American luxury market.

What is interesting to note about Acura is that it is actually the first Japanese luxury brand to be established in the U.S. Acura was established in March 1986. Lexus and Infiniti came later that year.

Ikeda is conscious of history. He uses phrases that I’ve not heard said by other luxury marque executives, like “inclusive luxury” and “emotion for money.” He talks about “authenticity,” not only as regards the materials that go into Acura vehicles (“If it looks like metal, it’s metal. If it looks like wood, it’s wood.”), but in the context of what the cars and crossovers that Acura offers to the market.

“It is what Mr. Honda would have wanted,” Ikeda says. He’s referring to the (co) founder of Honda Motor Company in 1948, Soichiro Honda. (The other founder: Takeo Fujisawa.)

For the early part of its existence, Honda Motor was a motorcycle manufacturer. While there had been a desire to produce automobiles, as well, the Japanese government was resistant to having additional car companies in the country. This changed in 1961, when the Specified Industry Promotion Bill was put into effect.

All the time Mr. Honda worked to establish the company as providing the best motorized vehicles in the world.

One of the many quotes from Soichiro Honda that I think is germane to Ikeda’s approach to Acura is this: "We have consistently chosen a most difficult path filled with hardships. We must possess the will to challenge difficulties and the wisdom to create new values without being bound by established standards. We do not wish to imitate others."

And in the luxury space, Acura is not going to be imitating others, and while the challenge might seem daunting (e.g., in 2017 Lexus delivered 305,132 vehicles; Acura 154,602), Ikeda seems wholly, authentically committed.

Will a designer pull it off? I wouldn’t bet against it.