FRANKFURT -- Mercedes-Benz USA, the new distributor for the Smart brand, will launch next week the first TV advertising campaign for the minicar since its 2007 arrival in the United States.
Although Mercedes executives declined to reveal the spots' creative message, they said the campaign would be backed by loan and lease deals from Mercedes-Benz's captive finance arm.
Penske Automotive Group Inc. previously handled distribution, sales and marketing of Smart in the United States.
Steve Cannon, Mercedes' vice president of marketing, promised changes are coming.
"Over the next 18 months, we will create a distinct Smart environment," he said. "But we will keep our cost structure low."
Big cities only
By that, Cannon meant the marketing budget likely would be regional in scope, sticking to the big city markets where the minicars make sense.
"We are not going to try to re-educate Middle America. That's pushing a rock up a hill," Cannon said.
Although Smart will be sold in Mercedes showrooms, it will be marketed as a stand-alone brand, "not 'Smart, by Mercedes-Benz,'" Cannon said in a round-table interview here. He said the commercials would not make a connection between Smart and Mercedes.
Mercedes parent Daimler AG owns Smart.
When Penske distributed and sold the brand, 75 dealers held Smart franchises. As part of the transfer of distribution, sales and marketing to Mercedes-Benz USA on July 1, Penske took back franchises from 22 non-Mercedes-Benz dealers. Mercedes-Benz USA has subsequently added 30 Mercedes dealers to carry the Smart brand in showrooms similar to the arrangement Toyota dealers have with Scion.
Next Smart in 2014
Another 20 Mercedes dealers are expected to add Smart by year end, said Ernst Lieb, president of Mercedes-Benz USA.
Dealers won't get the next-generation Smart, which is being co-developed by Daimler and Renault SA, until 2014. But there was never a question of putting the brand in limbo until then, Cannon said.
"We are not going to prop up the brand," Cannon said. "People know Smart and Mercedes are not the same company. They know what they are getting into."
Lieb does not anticipate any customer-service problems inside Mercedes dealerships from customers expecting Mercedes quality from Smart cars bought under the same roof. The current Smart has been savaged by critics for its balky transmission, inhospitable ride and fuel economy that falls short of what consumers expect of the tiny two-seater.
Still, Smart's 45,000 U.S. owners are passionate about their vehicles. Mercedes plans to tap into that for social media purposes, said Mike Slagter, Mercedes vice president of sales.
In turn, Mercedes' marketing clout will allow Smart to gain access to mainstream marketing opportunities that Smart otherwise could not afford on its own, Lieb said. For instance, there were Smart cars inside the Mercedes display at the recent U.S. Open tennis tournament, as well as at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.