As Mercedes-Benz's U.S. marketers brainstormed in 2009 about how to attract youthful buyers with a compact sedan then being developed, it quickly became clear what they needed most -- an un-Mercedes-like sticker price.
Something, say, less than $30,000.
That's what the marketing team wanted and that's what it got for the front-wheel-drive CLA that arrives in showrooms this fall. But it meant jumping through a series of hoops to persuade Daimler executives in Stuttgart.
"From our earliest product concept, when they asked us, 'Where does it need to be?' we always said $29,900,'" said Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. "We wanted to shock people."
And that's pretty much what they did last month in a 30-second Super Bowl commercial that proclaimed the price in big, bold numbers.
Still, it was a three-year effort to get Germany to agree not only to price the sedan at $29,900, before the $925 shipping charge, but to announce the price so long before it goes on sale in September.
"It was a phenomenal accomplishment that we ended up with the pricing we asked for," said Cannon, who was head of marketing when discussions on the subject began in July 2009.
"Germany knows we are trying to open our brand and we are trying to get younger buyers," he said. "You can have great styling that speaks to them. But if you do not bring your transaction price to the point where they can reach your brand, you aren't going to accomplish your objective."
The CLA, a sedan with coupe styling, is the first of three compact fwd vehicles that Mercedes will offer in the United States. The GLA compact crossover goes on sale in August 2014 and the B-class electric sedan debuts in early 2015.
But the CLA is regarded as the halo car at the bottom of its range.
"We said, 'Here is the opportunity with one car to redefine the perception of the Mercedes-Benz brand,'" Cannon said. "People always put us up into this stratosphere. We are associated with the S class and heads of state."
U.S. team members knew they needed a significant price gap -- at least $5,000 -- between the CLA and the C-class sedan so there would be no cannibalization, said Bernie Glaser, Mercedes-Benz USA marketing boss.
The 2013 C250 sedan, Mercedes' current U.S. entry car, is priced at $36,275, including shipping. Typically equipped, the average transaction price for the C class tops $40,000, Glaser said. The average C-class buyer is 51 years old with a household income of $137,000.
With the CLA, Mercedes wanted to aim at 30- to 40-year-old buyers.
In 2010, a few influential U.S. dealers were flown to the Mercedes design studio in Irvine, Calif., for an early look at the CLA. It was unusual for Mercedes to let dealers see a product so early but management wanted their support in the pricing talks with Germany.