Mercedes-Benz had its best-ever March, besting key competitors BMW and Lexus. That's a big deal -- since the last time Mercedes topped Lexus in U.S. sales was back in 2000. Steve Cannon, MB's head of marketing in the U.S., said the company and its dealers -- which have just completed a $1.4 billion, three-year-long investment in upgrading dealership facilities -- celebrated by traveling en masse to company headquarters in Stuttgart for Mercedes-Benz' 125th anniversary.
"We showed them in the neighborhood of 13 future products, which is normally something we don't do," Cannon said. "Typically we might show dealers two or three, but we felt that since they invested in us, we owed them some return." Cannon said the dealers came back "floating on air."
The timing is good, Cannon said, as Mercedes-Benz will launch five new products this year including a new SLK, as well as a strikingly redesigned 2012 CLS, unveiled last fall, and a new C-Class Coupe, which Cannon says will be a sporty, male-centric, younger vehicle.
"It will be almost all conquest," he said. All of which means the Montvale, NJ-based company will focus on new brand attributes. "We own luxury, safety and prestige, and innovation. But the three areas [where] we could be moving up are fun, performance, style and design," he said. "That's what the CLS is all about."
The company's U.S. retail efforts include a plan for dealership sales staff to use portable, rich-media tools to engage potential customers. The efforts center on iPads that sales staff will carry with them to engage consumers and explore features during vehicle "walk-arounds."
The iPad venture extends a dealership program already in place involving HD flat-screen interactive screens that allows consumers to configure vehicles, color them, change out components and enables sales staff to use visuals to articulate features.
"Trying to track technologies like pre-safe braking [a sensor alerts-based system that corrects to avoid an accident] for a sales guy who has to keep up with all models is virtually impossible," Cannon said. "So we give them assist tools...first digital HD screens that have now migrated to the iPad. I think it's potentially a game changer because for so many consumers, visiting a dealership means having to arm themselves for the experience, because they see it as confrontational. Whatever tools that postpone that confrontational moment and continue a collaborative atmosphere is what we are trying to do."
Cannon said that while the dealerships are responsible for buying the iPads, the automaker is developing downloadable apps that essentially transport the big-screen experience to the tablets. "Our deal with dealers is that we do all of the applications, including content creation, all of the technical vignettes and graphics. That's our job. It's [the] sales guy's job to deploy those iPads onto the showroom floor, but we will monitor and assist in that process," he said.
The company is continuing a parallel ad strategy that Cannon described as a balance of the rational and emotional. On the emotional side are ads like the "SLS Triumphant" campaign that makes the super car a halo for the brand. On the other side is an ongoing series of ads showing real owners of vehicles like the E Class talking about how technologies in their vehicles helped them avoid crashes by sensing when they were dozing off and waking them up.
Cannon said a forthcoming spot will feature a software developer at Google who wrote a letter to Mercedes about how his car kept him out of a crack up. "We are going to film him. Those are stories we will continue to tell."