Time for an image focus

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jun 30 2009, 07:23am hrs
Stephanie Clifford

Car companies such as Hyundai and Ford have been showing solidarity with consumers recently, running ads promising that the companies will help them should they lose their jobs. Mercedes-Benz USA is trying a different way to get customers to buy cars as it introduces its updated E-Class Series. The ad campaign for the midsize car, available as a sedan or a coupe, is the companys biggest in two years, estimated at $75 million. It does not talk about great value or good deals. Instead, it focuses on the cars technology and heritage, a somewhat standard approach for the brand.

Everyone has that trigger thats going to get them out there in the marketplace again, assuming that they have the means and theyre just choosing not to spend it, said Alex Gellert, the chief executive of Merkley & Partners, part of the Omnicom Group, which created the Mercedes print and television ads.

The E-Class update is meant to turn around an alarming sales slide for Mercedes, which is owned by Daimler. Its US sales have declined 28.7% this year from the same time in 2008, according to the company. May sales were even further off, falling 33.4% from May 2008. The United States turned in the worst showing of any geographic region in May.

Even given the sales challenge, Steve Cannon, vice-president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA, decided not to echo the recession-conscious marketing that other car manufacturers have used. Hyundai promised to help customers pay for their cars if they lost their jobs, an offer Ford and General Motors soon matched. A recent spate of ads for Hondas Insight described it as designed and priced for us all.

Id rather tell our brand story, our innovation story, our value story, than join the chorus of everyone else thats screaming salethats about the only message thats out there right now, Cannon said. Customers have told us, we know there are deals out there, so just getting on television with an expensive media plan and shouting, theres a sale, they already know that.

The television spots have begun recently. One starts with scenes of families admiring classic Mercedes cars and trucks at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, Germany. These are interspersed with scenes of a coupe driving along a forested road. At the end, the car bursts through the museums glass wall and spins into place alongside the other Mercedes cars. Taking its rightful place in a long line of amazing performance machines, the narrator says.

A television commercial for the sedan highlights new technology in the cars, like attention assist, which helps alert sleepy drivers, and an automatic braking system that kicks in when a driver loses concentration and is about to hit something. The narrator promotes the E-Class as the future of the automobile.

Although Mercedes wanted to avoid emphasising sale prices, it did place the starting price for the cars at the end of each television spot and in the print ads. At $48,600, it is almost 9% less than the starting price for the last set of E-Class cars, from the 2003 model year. The ads give just the price, though, not the discount. For Mercedes-Benz customers, $48,600 is a huge value story, and those people know it, so I dont have to say, value, valuethats not appropriate for our brand, Cannon said. The folks that are looking for a mid-size luxury sedan understand the price points.

The television ads will run in two phases: The one that has started recenly will run through July. The ads will resume in September, with the television networks season premieres. The ads will run on networks sucha s Bravo and CNN and during news programmes. Print ads will soon run in magazines such as Architectural Digest, Golf Digest and Tennis. The online advertising, designed by Razorfish, a unit of Microsoft, includes home page advertisements on sites such as Bloomberg.com and CNBC.com.

For his customers, I think theres a level of crisis fatigue and recession fatigue out there, marketing down to, we feel your pain. Were all in this together, versus, this is who we are, Cannon said. All the things that mattered to them before the recession, it still matters to them. But we have to work harder to break through, because the system has been shocked significantly.