Mercedes Grows Up

For Americans, “creative” may not be the first word that comes to mind when they think of Mercedes-Benz. Instead, they’re probably thinking “status symbol,” “luxury car” and “precision engineering.” Or maybe “whoa.”

A well-articulated version of the latter is what the new Mercedes-Benz is hoping to inspire. But deeper. And from every consumer, around the world. And that absolutely involves creative thinking by the exacting German automotive brand.

“We don’t want to be only a respected brand,” said Jens Thiemer, head of marketing for Mercedes-Benz Cars. “We want to be at the next level. We want to be a loved brand.”

That statement carried a bit of extra weight on a freezing day in January, because Thiemer was addressing a crowd of journalists seated in the Center of Excellence at Sindelfingen, where Mercedes designs its cars. This Daimler brand flew the journalists into nearby Stuttgart from around the globe. And with such a crowd, Thiemer knew his words could be broadcast around the world.

Thinking creatively about the brand, he said, involves every aspect of Mercedes-Benz — right down to the idea of car ownership and of driving, itself. Autonomous vehicles and car-sharing are concepts that must evolve and be implemented as fast as design changes, but Mercedes must keep the brand relevant and still respect tradition, he said to open the two-day workshop, “Brand Experience, Mercedes-Benz.”

Mercedes-Benz Rebrand Drives From Auto to Mobility

This evolving brand has been taking shape for years. Perhaps it can be tracked down to the June 2013 announcement about Thiemer’s head-of-brand role. Or the November 2014 proclamation about the worldwide Mercedes agency model, which said, “the new strategy also aims to ensure that marketing campaigns are more consistently implemented at an international level.” Or in November 2016, when the brand literally elevated the role of design by creating the position of chief design officer.

Even with all of these changes, Thiemer noted during the workshop, Mercedes-Benz hasn’t yet reached its destination. But it’s progressing. He cited U.S. brand consultancy Interbrand declaring Mercedes “the world’s most valuable premium automotive brand” in 2016. Plus, the brand sold 2 million cars last year.

But these numbers aren’t as important as the illustration of the momentum from Mercedes reentering Interbrand’s Top 10 when its brand value increased by 18 percent, to $43.49 billion, he said. With excitement, he added that that’s “exactly the movement we want to see.”

It’s all coming together, Thiemer said.

“We understand ourself as a luxury brand,” he said to the journalists in his German accent, “but not as a traditional luxury brand. Yes, we invented the automobile. We have 130 years of legacy and tradition. But we interpret luxury today in a total other sense. It’s kind of casual luxury. It’s a luxury which is looking very much, and very focused in, to the future.”

“In the middle of our brand is the key question — what we are standing for, what we want to be. And that is described, our superlative, our commitment, our car, as being the best.

—Jens Thiemer

The Future

When Americans think of current stereotypes about Germans, it’s that they’re on time, they’re precise, and whatever they engineer and manufacture works and works well. And also that maybe they’re, well, a little … uptight.

Translating that into the perception of Mercedes? This may be both the positive and the negative “traditional” aspects of the brand Thiemer references here. Then there’s quality, comfort, customer care and safety.

“It’s the combination of pedigree on the one hand, and of being progressive on the other hand,” he says. “And I think, being proud of the very rich histories around you. But you have to stay relevant, especially for younger people. For the future, as well, it is even more important. And we know that, we have maybe had some lost years at the organization, where we too much obey[ed] our self-understanding of tradition, of being a kind of traditional brand.

“But tradition doesn’t help you to transform the brand, to be a relevant player for the future. Now we are back, and you see that, definitely, in the sales success. You see it in the success of the marketing of modern luxury.”

Speaking of coming back from a prim and proper brand perception, Thiemer discussed whether consumers believe Mercedes is “sporty.”

Mercedes-AMG GT

“You might have heard about that, there was, for a lot of years, the same opinion that there’s not much [difference between] the three German premium/luxury manufacturers,” he said to the journalists. “And now, for the first time, we are really seeing numbers from China. We are doing that little step, that half a step ahead of our competitors. Which make the brand, also in China, very unique and of course, very attractive, as well.

“What is still our part that we are working on is and was design. That is creative, but also sporting, yes? Where we are very good, but not on the top level.”

What’s helping Mercedes speed into the future is the plan it unveiled last year for a “mobility industry” offering, which is how Thiemer now characterizes the automotive industry. The plan and organization within Mercedes, called “CASE,” stands for connected, autonomous, shared mobility (car sharing) and electric vehicles.

“It’s kind of a speedboat within the big tanker of Mercedes-Benz,” Thiemer said of CASE. “And they have full responsibility for all of those big mega-trends … The new organization as a front-runner for a new kind of leadership culture in the company, so to act much more agile … to work in a smaller organization and, in general, become much more digital than we are today.”

To that end, Mercedes hired a Berlin startup leader to create its flagship connected offering, “Mercedes me.” Conrad Fritzsch started as the head of digital marketing in August 2016 and is thinking of the customer first, from inside the car out. How can the software ensure a flat tire in the middle of the night is fixed before the driver wakes up? How can the car tell the driver when a parking space is about to open up? How can it work as an IoT device and pick up a package? Fritzsch said once it has the data, Mercedes me will work for the driver.

“Our biggest present we can give you is time,” Fritzsch said.

Thiemer said offerings like this are how connectivity is racing to the top of the list for Mercedes customers.

“We interpret luxury today in a total other sense. It’s kind of casual luxury. It’s a luxury which is looking very much, and very focused in, to the future.”

—Jens Thiemer

Seamless Design

Car design is still the No. 1 reason customers buy Mercedes cars, Thiemer said.

In a dimly lighted room at the Center of Excellence at Sindelfingen, Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener stood in front of a deep red, shimmery and seamless “Aesthetics A” sculpture of a Mercedes compact car.

This is the vision for the future of Mercedes design, he said. Seamless design. What consumers are accustomed to seeing on vehicles — gaps between the hood and the fenders, for instance — will be invisible.

It’s one of the ways Wagener said Mercedes is working to be the best design company in the world.

On Jan. 27, Mercedes released a statement detailing the concept of “sensual purity” Wagener discussed.

“In applying this design philosophy, Mercedes-Benz sparked a transformation in design with the current A‑Class, launched in 2012,” the brand said. “The new design idiom featuring edges and creases — indentations and recesses in the sheet metal — aimed to create clear forms and sensual surfaces which showcase high-tech, while also arousing emotions. This played a decisive role in making the brand younger and was key to the company’s excellent sales results. Every Mercedes-Benz model that followed since was born from this philosophy, despite having an individual character. With the ‘Aesthetics A’ sculpture, the design team now presents the vision of a saloon car in the compact car segment which is stripped down to the essential body. It also provides a clear indication of how the design philosophy of ‘Sensual Purity’ will be manifested in the not-too-distant future. The ‘Aesthetics A’ sculpture embodies the advancement of the Mercedes-Benz design idiom.”

Similarly, every journalist left the workshop with a seamless “brand book” that illustrated the philosophy in a smooth silver wood grain. Physically opening the book “Sensual Purity — Gorden Wagener on Design” was an effort — the tome appeared to be solid, seamless.

Mercedes created the “#GrowUp” campaign for its line of compact cars.

Creativity With Attention to Detail

The same way Wagener’s book mirrored the sculpture and future car design in its seamlessness, Mercedes products all reflect attention to detail.

Guests in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart start their journeys of the 130 years of automotive history on the top floor — with a replica of a horse. Leave it to Mercedes, but there’s a faint equine smell near the pre-auto exhibit.

The race car exhibit — a chicane, of course — even has a whiff of rubber.

So it’s no surprise that back at the Center of Excellence at Sindelfingen, experts in fashion were helping design car interiors, designers were staring at the tops of their electric shavers and using those as inspiration for car speakers, and Wagener’s seamless book talked about listening to philosophers.

Along those lines, Thiemer detailed how Mercedes is using
“intelligent emotion” as the driving thought to have customers fall in love with the brand.

“In the middle of our brand is the key question — what we are standing for, what we want to be,” Thiemer said. “And that is described, our superlative, our commitment, our car, as being the best. The best, of course, in all different kinds of interpretation. The best, in the perspective, of customers of course. We want to see customers saying about Mercedes-Benz that it is not only the best car in the world, it’s the best mobility solution in the world for me. It’s the best kind of contact and dialogue I can have with a brand.”

To that end, Mercedes can’t tell customers how to think of it. But they will equate safety with trust, comfort with ease, sportiness with a boost in energy and so on.

Mercedes relies on social media, using a variety of Twitter handles, and encourages Instagram usage.

Socially Mobile

The brand goal for Mercedes is to be the best at everything it does, Thiemer said. Another way to achieve the goal of customer love is to gain their attention in their
free time.

“What I also wanted to show you is our track record with social media,” he said, pointing to slides that Mercedes didn’t release to the public. “You see here, it’s definitely a goal of ours to be in the No. 1 position on all social platforms. We have achieved that on Facebook. On Twitter, we are not yet there, but we are very good in terms of interactions on Instagram, as well. … On YouTube already, [Mercedes is the] No. 1 brand.”

Thiemer said on Instagram, the brand has 20.8 million customer interactions a month, which he believes is “by far” No. 1.

“What I also wanted to show you is that Formula One is, of course, a major social media channel in our portfolio,” he said. “It is, by far, the most successful sports channel in Formula One. We’re far ahead of Ferrari, we’re far ahead of Red Bull. And of course, winning the championship three times in a row gives you the possibility to really interact with the followers. And it’s creating content. Formula One is creating content, especially when you’re such a big, successful mention on that platform.”

“What does it mean to ‘Grow up’? It’s a good question. Throughout our lives, we’re told to do things a certain way. But maybe a modern life isn’t about following tradition. It’s about redefining it. Who says adulthood should stand in the way of our freedom?”

—Grow Up Campaign

‘Easy Driver’

In the U.S., what better way to gain customer attention in their free time than to advertise during the Super Bowl?

“We all know that the Super Bowl is the Olympics for advertising — still,” Thiemer said in January. “This is where the world is looking to. And, I think on the 5th of February in Houston, there will be again, a worldwide reach of probably around 800 million people.”

Even after the game, more than 3.3 million people have viewed just one version of the Mercedes commercial on YouTube as of May 13.

What they saw was the Mercedes mindset, rather than the car. Mercedes is trying to communicate on a human level, said Bernd Stegmann, director of brand and marketing strategy for Mercedes-Benz Cars.

Indeed, the 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster shows up in the final half of a commercial that originally appears to be about motorcycles.

Peter Fonda starred in the “Easy Driver” Super Bowl commercial by Mercedes.

Directed by the Coen brothers, “Easy Driver” opens with an aging biker putting on reading glasses to view titles on the bar’s jukebox. He picks a Hobson’s choice of “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. On a nearby wall, a movie poster from the 1969 film “Easy Rider” is enclosed in a shrine of memorabilia to the hippie biker saga.

The film’s star, Peter Fonda, shows up in the commercial outside of the bar and drives off in the ad’s nominal star, the Mercedes Roadster.

Though the brand workshop had highlighted how Mercedes is appealing to younger drivers, the workshop segment about this Baby Boomer-filled ad included comments from panelists about how being progressive and new doesn’t have to be an age.

In the commercial, the last comment from an older female biker appears to be about Fonda, but it’s unclear.

“Still looking good,” she says.

At five locations worldwide, Mercedes-Benz has set up Advanced Design studios which pick up stylistic trends at local level, analysing them and applying them to the creative process.

Grow Up

Compact cars and Mercedes.

It’s perhaps a combination that surprises many fans of this traditional brand.

But, like the campaign itself, there’s a double entendre here. Is Mercedes telling the target audience of its five compact car models to grow up, or is the brand telling itself to do so?

The description of the campaign debuting the compact car line does little to clear it up:

“What does it mean to ‘Grow up’? It’s a good question. Throughout our lives, we’re told to do things a certain way. But maybe a modern life isn’t about following tradition. It’s about redefining it. Who says adulthood should stand in the way of our freedom?”

Again, in the most popular video, the car — a CLA Coupé — makes a rare appearance. Instead, “Grow Up: ‘Get a Job’ Featuring A$AP Rocky — Mercedes-Benz Original” as it’s titled on YouTube, is mostly about the rapper’s story of getting his real job.

Other videos, commanding Millennials to go to bed early, get plenty of rest, be more social, take a weekend trip and take a family vacation, aren’t what they seem to be on the surface.

Thiemer says the #GrowUp effort appears to be working — during the past five years, Mercedes has sold 2 million compact cars. Most of those customers are new to the brand.

So marketing Mercedes is no longer about it just being a premium brand, Thiemer said. It’s about “being perceived not only as an automotive brand, but as a lifestyle statement.”

A loved brand.

Whoa.