In the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz had a classic car commercial.
A husband arrives home late and tells his wife, "My car broke down." The wife slaps him in the face. She does not believe her husband's Mercedes could break down.
Today, nobody would understand the advertisement. For many Mercedes drivers nowadays, breaking down is part of the ownership experience.
It took 90 years to build Mercedes' image of quality, and less than 10 years to damage it severely.
Dieter Zetsche has been directing the brand's fate for a year. The quality of Mercedes cars has noticeably improved over that period, but a year is much too short a time to expect lasting results.
Zetsche has cut jobs and operating costs at Mercedes, but that was relatively easy compared to what now lies ahead. His most important job is to renew the Mercedes brand.
The star emblem on every Mercedes model once signified that customers were getting the safest and most reliable cars that money could buy. Mercedes owners also knew they were buying a car with the highest level of workmanship.
But this unique image was needlessly abandoned in favor of excessive sportiness and a gratuitous pursuit of horsepower records, coupled with dubious model decisions and an unrestrained niche strategy.
Mercedes has wasted its energy on new vehicles such as the A-, B-, R- and GL-class models and the SLR McLaren.
No one really knows what the brand stands for anymore.
The Maybach ultraluxury sedan highlighted the misguided trend of chasing niches.
The Maybach damaged Mercedes' claim that the S-class upper-premium sedan was the best luxury car in the world. It also maneuvered the company into an awkward situation: Mercedes cannot quietly close the limping Maybach brand. Its customers are important people, and they are not likely to go along with this.
Until recently, Mercedes, with its Smart and Maybach brands, risked losing its way. The task now is to raise the profile of the core Mercedes brand.
Mercedes has to build the most reliable car -- not the fastest.
Zetsche's statements over the past few months are an indication he has recognized this. But it takes years, not months, to turn around the image of a brand such as Mercedes. There will be setbacks along the way.
Guido Reinking is editor of Automobilwoche. You may e-mail him at [email protected]