Effort comes as brand seeks to attract younger customers

M-B prepares to update dealership standards

Effort comes as brand seeks to attract younger customers

Mercedes has opened high-profile showcases, including Mercedes-Benz Manhattan, left, a “classical” dealership that sells cars, and the Mercedes-Benz Connection in Tokyo that displays but does not sell the brand's products.
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TOKYO -- Mercedes-Benz is laying the groundwork for revisions to its dealership standards, in conjunction with an initiative to reach out to younger buyers.

No changes to the brand's U.S. dealership standards are expected soon, said the executive in charge of the initiative. But in a wide-ranging interview last month at the Tokyo Motor Show, Jens Thiemer, head of brand communications for Mercedes-Benz Cars, stressed that Mercedes plans marketing and branding changes to become more relevant to a new group of consumers.

His goal, he said, is to reposition Mercedes so that younger consumers view it as "not just a brand that they say, 'That's a brand I [will] buy later' or 'That's a brand my parents buy' but 'That's a brand for me right now.'"

Thiemer, 41, rejoined Mercedes-Benz Cars in Stuttgart Aug. 1 after six years at an outside communications consultancy. He has a mandate from Ola Kaellenius, 44, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Mercedes-Benz Cars, to reach beyond the brand's traditional buyers.

In China, the average age of an S-class buyer is 30 to 35. But in the United States, the brand's owners tend to be older than 50.

Mercedes' compact car initiative is changing that. With the arrival of the CLA, and its base sticker price of $30,825, including shipping, "we're talking to people 30 to 35," Thiemer said.

His assignment is to make the brand's marketing communications "really relevant to younger people, to modernize it and to bring in a new language" that will tie into Mercedes' vehicle design language, known as "sensual purity," he said.

Jens Thiemer, head of brand communications for Mercedes-Benz Cars: "We want to break out from the Mercedes stereotypes."

'Approachable' Mercedes

As part of that, he said, "We want to break out from the Mercedes stereotypes." While the brand will remain known for "values like comfort, quality and safety," the company also wants "to make the brand fascinating, modern -- to make it relevant to a new target audience," particularly younger people.

While Mercedes wants to appeal to those who want an exclusive brand, it also wants to be "an approachable brand," Thiemer said.

He plans to rely on a variety of communications methods, including social media and the look of Mercedes dealerships.

Changes to dealership designs are "of course, a regular thing," he said, "to further develop the corporate identity and the corporate design of the brand."

"Right now, we are in the middle of finalizing the next step of bringing more luxury into our physical platforms," he said. The changes at dealerships will start next year in China. For example, black is expected to replace blue at Mercedes stores. "Black is a clear symbol for luxury," Thiemer said, "especially in combination with our brand color of silver."

Mercedes signage may make the brand's three-pointed star larger and shinier, in line with recent tweaks to the company's auto show stands, he said.

But those changes won't come soon. Mercedes' U.S. dealers "have massively invested over the years," said Mercedes-Benz Cars spokesman Christoph Horn. "I think it's not time" to ask them to spend more.

"It's not the starting point" for more demands, Thiemer said. He said that compared with Mercedes' other retail networks around the globe, its U.S. dealers are strong from a corporate image and corporate design standpoint. "So there's no need right now to change it immediately."

Besides, he said, "We're investing not so much in classical showrooms." Instead, the company is "investing into the complete journey of our customers and the different touch points with our brand. People want to connect with our brand anywhere, anytime, and therefore you need the perfect combination of all kinds of virtual touch points and physical ones."

For instance, while the CLA's launch was supported by a TV spot during the Super Bowl, most of the launch budget was spent on digital marketing, Thiemer said.

Urban brand outlets

In addition, the automaker is spreading a new form of facility around the world: upscale showcases in major world cities, known as urban brand outlets or the Mercedes-Benz Connection. They feature vehicle displays, coffee shops, restaurants and, often, art galleries.

The first opened in 1995 on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Mercedes has 20 of them, in cities such as Berlin, Brussels, Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. Now, the automaker is launching a push aimed at doubling the number of those showcases to 40 in 2020, Thiemer said. He declined to say how many will be in the United States.

Other automakers have similar showcases, but Thiemer says, "We have the most experience with this."

The Mercedes-Benz Manhattan showroom, also opened as part of that initial wave of high-profile metropolitan stores, is not a true urban brand outlet. It is what the company calls a "classical" dealership that sells cars. Mercedes-Benz Connection showcases, generally owned by the company, don't sell vehicles.

Instead, they combine vehicle displays with "all kinds of virtual possibilities: playing around with different features, showing how to equip the cars," Thiemer said.

The showcases also want to generate leads, provide test drives and direct consumers to "our classical dealerships," he said.

But "the most important thing is to give people a place where they can hang out," Thiemer said, so that younger consumers will say to their friends, "Let's have a good time at Mercedes and spend some hours there," not just to see the special events held at the space, but "because it's an attractive place and they love to be there."

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.

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