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Mercedes-Benz: 2014 IPA Effectiveness Awards Shortlist Interview

A series of campaigns and a revamped media strategy repositioned Mercedes-Benz and helped improve its previously stuffy image, delivering a profit ROMI of £1.11 for every £1 spent.


Q1. When and why did you decide to launch a campaign?

DE: “At the beginning of 2011, Mercedes-Benz UK was in an enviable position. It had consistently maintained its place amongst the top three luxury automotive brands despite consistently charging a price premium compared to its direct competitors.

“But a radical change in business ambition called for a radical change in communication strategy. From a stable 75,000 car sales per year, the business challenged itself to break through the magic 100,000 cars mark for the first time. At this point it was acknowledged that a long-known weakness in brand image couldn’t be endured any longer.”

Q2. How did you feel about the original brief?

DE: “In truth, a little concerned.

“It wasn’t so much the communication challenge that caused us to pause. We had a very good understanding of the problem. It was the expectation that the business would achieve its volume ambitions within the next three years (whilst in the grip of the worst recession since the great depression).

“Achieving the business target would mean attracting a new, younger audience to the brand - an audience for whom the negative image of the archetypal Mercedes-Benz driver was deeply entrenched. To change image perceptions so quickly the brief recognised the need to break the mould for the brand and for the category.”

Q3. How hard was it to get the campaign signed off?

DE: “It was a continual challenge because we were not only trying to change the style of comms but more fundamentally the comms model.

“From talking to the retail network it was evident that young drivers weren’t coming to Mercedes-Benz dealerships to experience the cars, so we needed to take the driving experience to them.

“Central to our thinking was the belief that in order for a brand to be perceived differently it needs to behave differently. We needed to turn the brand from a passive transmitter of advertising messages to an active curator of meaningful and relevant participatory experiences.

“That’s a massive mental shift for any marketing team, let alone one that, up until that point, had simply relied upon big traditional television campaigns to communicate premium product attributes to relatively easy to reach older discerning car buyers.”

Q4. When and how did you first know that you had been successful?

DE: “Up until this point we had relied upon traditional post-campaign brand and ad tracking to gauge success – albeit a long time after the fact.

“But one of the benefits of interactive digital experiences is the clear and immediate data trail people leave in their wake.

“We were concerned that the brand hadn’t yet earned the right to participate online, but we knew we were onto something special when, within one month of launching 'Escape the Map', over 700,000 people had visited the campaign website and spent an average of over five minutes there. As an immediate consequence, visits to the Mercedes-Benz website rose to four times its monthly average in a single day.

“In the end, 'Escape the Map' achieved record levels of interaction with the Mercedes-Benz brand, leading to the fastest reported payback by an automotive campaign in IPA Effectiveness history (compared with shortlisted IPA papers in the automotive sector including cases by brands such as VW, Audi, BMW and others submitted over the last three decades).”

Q5. What was the biggest challenge in demonstrating the effectiveness of your work?

DE: “With automotive papers it’s notoriously difficult to isolate communications’ contribution to sales. This is particularly so over the longer term – as is the case with our Mercedes-Benz paper.

“Above all, the issue is the continual ‘noise’ generated by a regular stream of product facelifts and new product launches. As has been the case with previous automotive papers where econometric modelling data isn’t available, we have relied upon sales performance versus other major European markets (where precisely the same noise factors apply). This data also tends to be hard for a global brand to both gather and gain permission to use since it overtly favours one country over the rest.

“In addition, automotive brands tend to be guarded about their margins – especially if they don’t own their entire retail network (as is the case with Mercedes-Benz) - making net revenue ROMI precarious to report.”

Q6. How did this campaign compare to previous campaigns by the brand and competitors?

DE: “These campaigns were a significant step change for the brand and a long-term commitment to a different model of communications.

“At the outset it was evident that we didn’t have any benchmarks in place against which to gauge effectiveness. It meant initiating a new set of behaviours for the client and the agency.

“We set up a Google Docs spreadsheet into which all roster agencies could feed. Each campaign had an associated set of approximately fifty-five individual KPIs. An aggregated dashboard was shared with senior Mercedes-Benz management every Monday morning.

“This allowed us, for the first time, to optimise the campaign whilst still live — as well as gathering learnings to apply to subsequent campaigns that followed the same model of brand behaviour.

“Each subsequent campaign, from 'Escape the Map' through 'YouDrive' to 'Sound with Power', improved in efficiency and payback.”

Q7. What lessons did this campaign teach you?

DE: “Persuading indifferent prospects to engage with content is one thing, but to get them to do so for any meaningful period of time is another. Visitors spent an average of over five minutes interacting with our content. We think this was because all three campaigns followed the core principles of long-form entertainment: plot, character and jeopardy.

“All three were a form of interactive storytelling where people became active participants and were able to steer the action.

“But perhaps the biggest lesson of all was the power of aggregated campaign data. It meant unprecedented inter-agency collaboration and data pooling and it led to a significant increase in the speed and quality of decision making in the business.”

Q8. What were the low points/high points of this campaign?

DE: “The high and low point happened at the same moment in time.

“'YouDrive', the second campaign in the series of three outlined in the paper, was the world’s first campaign where social interaction drove broadcast action in real time. Viewers were able to vote for their favourite plotline via Twitter live during X Factor’s commercial breaks.

“The nation’s favourite plot – with the percentage who voted for each alternative displayed on screen - was played out in subsequent breaks the same night – culminating in a completed 90 sec narrative.

“It was an incredibly powerful moment to see the near instantaneous conscious response of the public to a television commercial. What they didn’t see, though, was the agency sitting in ITV’s offices at 9pm on a Saturday night entering the Twitter data results as live into the programming.”

Q9. What would you do differently if you did this campaign over again?

DE: ““Our industry is obsessed with the long tail. Search for the term on Google and you get a plethora of images depicting media models. Search for long nose and you get lots of images of Pinocchio!

“We found equal value in the long nose as well the long tail. ‘Sniffing out’ and rewarding an influential audience to create a groundswell of peer-to-peer interest and sharing before going mainstream is something we learned to exploit over the course of the three individual campaigns outlined in the paper. However, if we had invested more time and effort behind this objective we potentially could have invested less in broadcast media to achieve the same ends.”

Q10. If you could have worked on one, other IPA award-winning campaign over the years which would it be, and why?

DE: “BBH’s Johnnie Walker campaign “From whisky producer to global icon” (Grand Prix, 2008).  It’s proof that with strategic rigour an idea can be based on heritage and human insight and still transcend cultural borders without diluting its effectiveness.  Global success stories like this are rare and I don’t think it’s been bettered since.”

Last updated 09/09/2014

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