Mercedes Benz Could Use An Advertising Jolt

David Kiley

The Mercedes-Benz brand still stands for excellence. Make no mistake. But just as the venerable German luxury brand kicks off a barrage of TV and print ads designed to re-engineer its status in the American psyche, it seems pretty clear that it has miles to go before it gets its message right.

There are three new TV ads by agency Merkley+partners,NY heralding the arrival of the new S Class, Mercedes Benz's flagship sedan. The "Race" (pictured above) is a video postcard from Mercedes's racing history dating all the way back to an 1894 race near Paris. The black and white ad looks great as it evolves seemlessly to a present day context with today's Mercedes Benzes zooming around the track. The message, "The race that really matters...the race with never really over" is a good one. The overall impact of the ad, though, is muted. The payoff isn't strong enough.

The next two ads in the series are downhill from there. "Weld Them" is a series of quick pulsating video cuts of cars being welded, dipped in paint and rust inhibitors, hood ornaments being fastened, etc. The screen copy reads,"What goes into making the best cars in the world? You have no idea." Huh? What's the point of this? The continuing tagline is "Mercedes-Benz. Unlike Any Other." Problem: Anyone in the know about cars and the car business (and these are the people who tend to have influence in their peer groups) knows that Mercedes has been dogged in recent years with quality issues, and that some of the designs and product choices that have come out of Stuttgart, Germany just haven't made the brand as fashionable, aspirational or relevant as it once was. In short, the sparkle has been off the three-pointed star. An assertion of "...the best cars in the world" strikes me as a bit obnoxious. Ten years ago, when I was working for Mercedes-Benz's former ad agency, the researchers recognized that the brand had become a bit obnoxious among people the company very much wanted to attract as customers. Ads back then went out of their way, effectively, to make Mercedes more accessible and friendly, but without losing the aspirational character in the brand.

The alchemy of accessible and aspirational is just not right in these spots. The third spot is just a dull series of scenes of a couple driving in the car going through surreal scenes that give the voiceover opportunities for platitudes: "It turns safety into security." "It turns a glance into a stare." "It turns the mundane into the magnificent." Yada Yada Yada. This looks way too much like...well...advertising.

I wish these ads were less mundane and more magnificent.

There is also a barrage of some 60-90 print ads breaking today, which will run throughout the year, meant to re-assert Mercedes's quality standings in our minds. Mercedes had dropped to 14th from ninth out of 36 brands in J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study in 2003, but rebounded to No. 5 last year.

Look, the wheels never fell of Mercedes-Benz quality. But when you go around asserting your brand as the best in the world, you set yourself up to be criticized, needled and scoffed at when the company falls down on the job or sends a poor design out of the chute. Mercedes has been dinged in recent years for launching products like the original M-Class SUV, which didn't measure up as a true Benz, and a C Class coupe that was priced around $25K and reminded few of German excellence.

Only part of Mercedes-Benz's battle today is improving quality. The latest designs: an all-new M Class; the new S-Class; a new R-Class are all worthy Benzes. The other, in some ways tougher, battle is regaining the fashion appeal, the zip, the pizazz, the brand energy with buyers and prospects. Thats is largely constructed through gaining acceptance and praise for the products, as well as for communications. Clearly, there's more work to do to catch the marketing communications up with the designs and quality improvements.