Visitors to the Mercedes Advanced Design Center in Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart, are required to leave their mobile phones at the front desk. The company is highly concerned about industrial espionage at the facility, where chief designer Gordon Wagener is developing new models that Jens Thiemer, head of brand communications, will market to customers. The fact that both Mercedes’ design and marketing are in better shape today has a lot to do with the good chemistry between the two men, both natives of Essen in the northwestern part of Germany.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Thiemer, Germany won the soccer World Cup. What does the trophy do for the team’s main sponsor, Mercedes?
Thiemer: First of all, we’re thrilled that our “fourth star” campaign (for the country’s fourth World Cup win) was such a resounding success. We deliberately set the bar high before the World Cup with our slogan, “Ready like never before,” and the team lived up to those expectations. We see the German team’s victory as the culmination of an effective partnership. After all, we’ve sponsored the German Soccer Association since 1972, through all its ups and downs.
Mercedes is a global brand. Does the national team hold an appeal for people outside Germany?
Thiemer: We just had a meeting with our global heads of marketing, from Italy to China. Many of them wanted to use our German advertising materials that involve the national team – even sales and marketing in England is interested. This national team is very popular around the world, and we’re happy to take advantage of that.
Formula One is your second draw. The car racing series has come under fire in the wake of corruption scandals. Are you sticking to Formula One?
Thiemer: Motorsports has always been part of the Mercedes brand. Our engineers worked hard to make the current series of successes in Formula One possible, and the victories, clearly, are a gift to our marketing effort. Technical developments in racing are incorporated into our regular models, such as the new S500 plug-in hybrids. Of course, we also use racing for the interplay between marketing and design.
What does that mean, Mr. Wagener? Do wins on the soccer field or on the racetrack somehow heighten the appeal of your cars?
Wagener: It means that brand and design are closely linked. The car itself is our best ambassador, and a lot has happened in that respect. We set out in a direction in design five years ago, and you can see the results today. My job was to bring “the car of our fathers” into the next generation. We started with the compact class, then we turned our attention to the S-Class, and now we’re working on the other segments. Our sales figures show that we’ve succeeded in several respects, especially in our aim to rejuvenate the brand.
Are your customers younger today?
Thiemer: Yes. In the 1980s, the Golf GTI was the car that some received as a high-school graduation gift. Today it’s the A-Class in many markets. The A-Class is a lifestyle segment in Italy, the A 45 AMG has cult status in Japan, and our CLA is one of the most successful market introductions of all time in the United States.
Other carmakers have been in the mass segment for a long time, and now VW is calling its new Passat a “premium” car.
Thiemer: We’ve been doing more than premium for a long time. It’s a concept from the 1990s, when many products, even high-volume brands, were being marketed as so-called premium brands. Mercedes-Benz, however, represents modern luxury, which is a completely different animal.
What do you mean?
Wagener: Sensual clarity in design. Our brand stands for modern luxury, which is formally expressed through sensual clarity. Sensuality is emotion and warmth, which is luxury. It isn’t bling-bling and it isn’t necessarily a gold chain, either. Clarity stands for modernity. Think about Braun’s design in the 1960s or Apple today: It’s a question of simple solutions. It just happens to be more difficult to strip away than to jam everything into a design. Look at the new S-Class coupe, for example. It has only one line, it’s been reduced to its essence, and all the proportions are right.
Is the taste for luxury truly global? Asians, for example, seem to like a glitzier look.
Wagener: Here in Germany, things are often very rational – our houses, devices and cars. Tastes are already different in the United States, and we might feel that things are a little on the kitschy side in Asia and the Middle East. Still, people there like Western luxury, with three out of four luxury brands coming from the West.
Thiemer: We surveyed potential customers under 30 in the United States, Europe and China. It’s a fact that the luxury concept has become more uniform worldwide over the years. There is even a perceptible shift in Russia, where design was long dominated by the oligarchs’ taste for luxury. Luxury is an innovative lifestyle that provides breathing room, which we coherently and successfully convey in our products, from the A-Class to the S-Class.
More dynamic on the outside, more comfortable on the inside, and more luxury overall?
Wagener: It’s always a combination of intelligence and beauty, on both the inside and the outside. Obviously, we designers are always about five years ahead. Just think of digitization and driverless cars. If you’re on the highway and the car is driving itself, a luxurious interior becomes all the more important. Suddenly, I’m able to connect to the rest of the world (via wireless technology). This will change cars in the next 15 years more than in the last 50.
Will the interior become more important than engine performance?
Wagener: We’ll have to use different ways to distinguish ourselves in the future. Emissions standards will push us toward smaller engines…
Thiemer: …and yet we won’t just be seeing driverless cars with three-cylinder engines in the future. Of course, engine power will still be important, but in more efficient forms, including lightweight design, plug-in hybrids and perfect aerodynamic drag coefficients. The absolute performance that the driver experiences can still go up; it’s just that it’ll be created and implemented in more intelligent and responsible ways. That, too, is part of modern luxury.
If customers even want cars anymore. Fewer and fewer young people are wandering into classic car dealerships.
Thiemer: We stopped waiting for customers to walk through the door years ago. We do road shows and we pop up in our customers’ lives. We’ve already implemented this new form of brand presentation with our first Mercedes me Store in Hamburg. It includes a bistro and lounge area, along with an innovative multi-touch table, where you dip into our virtual product and brand environment. Visitors are approached in a very different way by a “product concierge,” who begins by conveying the new Mercedes sensation, in a relaxed way and without any sales pressure.
So Mercedes outlets are becoming meeting places?
Thiemer: They’re getting livelier. In Japan, for example, Mercedes-Benz managed to build two successful sites in Tokyo and Osaka. These facilities are venues that are initially unrelated to buying a car. They’re venues for business lunches and for after-work parties, places to be, where the focus is on the new Mercedes feeling – innovation combined with emotion. We’ll continue to expand these marketing experiences.
The interview was conducted by Martin Murphy and Markus Fasse.
Translated by Christopher Sultan.