mercedes is driving dangerously, chasing customers
“Brazen.” “Provocative.” “Exuberant.” What automotive brand comes to mind when you hear those words? BMW? Audi? Maybe even Porsche? Certainly not Mercedes – and yet, that’s exactly how New York Times reporter John Pearley Huffman described Mercedes’ newest release, the CLA250.
Now, I’m not a car gal so I can’t tell you if Huffman’s review is fair or not. But if you read his comments from a brand point of view, as I did, he provides plenty of reason to be concerned. It seems as if Mercedes, in its quest to attract younger customers, has taken its eyes off its brand. It’s a particularly dangerous move for a brand like Mercedes that has built up such powerful equity over the years.
Huffman reports, “[The CLA250] looks young, exciting, vital and, maybe, un-Germanic.” Aren’t German engineering and quality key attributes of the Mercedes brand?
He also describes the car’s ride as “harsh” and “unsettling.” “This discombobulating behavior isn’t just un-Mercedes-like,” he says. “It’s nasty.” That doesn’t sound like the pampered luxury ride that people expect from the brand.
The primary brand offense, though, is that the CLA250 just isn’t different from other options. Huffman writes that the car’s mechanicals are “for the most part, rather ordinary…The Mercedes engine delivers its power seamlessly and doesn’t make much racket, but so does the Kia. The failure to significantly distinguish the CLA engine’s output and character from that of putatively less regal Korean models is telling.” Mercedes’ tagline claims the brand is “Engineered like no other car in the world,” but it sounds like that just isn’t the case with this new model.
Prior to the introduction of the CLA250, Mercedes would have fit well in the mix of brands featured in my new book, What Great Brands Do. It seems to meet the “great brand” qualifications:
- produces higher profit margin than average of category
- commands price premium vs. competitive brands
- enjoys strong consumer esteem
- tops industry lists including Harris Poll, Stengel 50, and Interbrand’s Best Global Brands
But this latest move calls into question whether or not it follows one of the critical brand-building principles that great brands live out: Great Brands Don’t Chase Customers. Great brands hold fast to their brand values and positioning and accept that their brand isn’t for everyone. They embrace and celebrate who they are and what they stand for and invite like-minded people to be a part of their brand.
Of course cultivating a pipeline of new customers is vital for a brand like Mercedes whose existing customers may be moving out of their prime spending years. But great brands leverage their existing equities to attract new customers, they don’t squander them. And that’s exactly what Mercedes seems to be doing.
Huffman astutely summarizes Mercedes’ chase for customers: “This is a Mercedes that feels designed to fill out a marketing plan instead of hewing to the company’s historic, stoic, imperturbable commitment to excellence.”