Creativity in the time of recession

Or, why the brand should never take a back-seat (pun unintended, but why miss the glorious chance anyway?).

In June 2009, Mercedes Benz launched a related diversification. The Mercedes Benz Driving Academy was inaugurated by the F1 driver, Lewis Hamilton. On offer is an early start to safe driving. Young persons over 12 (minimum height 5′) can take  early lessons; persons over 17 can take lessons leading to a driving licence and take post-licence classes. Experienced drivers can do much more including improve skills or do AMG days.

The launch of this academy was propitiously timed with the British schools on summer holiday. Mercedes Benz World in Weybridge, Surrey is positively teeming with kids and their parents and grandparents these days. But on the whole, this is a great example of creative thinking about the strategic management of the brand in a time of recession.

The driving academy is a related diversification for Mercedes Benz into a service category where incumbents BSM or AA cannot compete meaningfully. Sure they can offer driving lessons but can they deliver the aspirational value of Mercedes Benz?

While driving lessons with the Mercedes Benz Academy cost about the same as those with a good BSM/ AA/ independent instructor, the brand association has effectively premium-ised the pedestrian (sorry!) category. Lessons take place, for instance, in a Mercedes Benz A-Class, a far cry from the Nissan Micra, Ford Fiesta or similar cars used by driving schools.

By offering children as young as 12 the possibility of driving lessons and experiences – and the promise of a finale with Lewis Hamilton for this summer’s driving experiences – Mercedes Benz has upped the ante, catching them young, in a product category that has traditionally not had much to do with children except use them as points of concern for selling the safety features in a car.

But more important from a strategic and a branding point of view is the positioning – making younger drivers safer. Catching them young could look cynical but statistics suggest that those who learn at young ages are less at a risk of accidents than those who learn at later ages. What does this do for Mercedes Benz? It scores the firm valuable corporate social responsibility points in driving stakes.

When times are tough and money is tight, brand investment must get creative, not become the sacrificial goat at the altar of cost-cutting. This is a fabulous example and some news will follow for my own business, later in the year, along similar lines.

More info: Mercedes Benz’s targeting strategy includes social media. The Driving Academy is on Twitter. Others can become their fan on their Facebook page.

Full Disclosure: In this case, I am paying Mercedes Benz Driving Academy. So this post comes with the full disclosure that I am doing track and road sessions with the Academy and enjoying my experience.

Related reading:

Leverage and strategic creativity in tough times

5 thoughts on “Creativity in the time of recession

  1. I liked your post.

    It is about time that automobile brands looked at safety issues outside of the vehicle. I had written on a similar theme .

    Incidentally the Mercedes innovation was worked upon by the brand consulting firm Wolff Olins,

    @Syamant: Thanks. Also for the links. I read your post. Interestingly, as drivers would know, a learner-driver in early stages is fixated with the controls inside the car; but in later stages, the awareness of the whole context of driving, including other drivers, hazards and unforeseeable events, all outside the car, grows. In that respect, I think this has been a smart (no pun!) move for Mercedes.

    Picking a thread from Asit’s comment below, I think Mercedes could enter the market with a car specifically for young drivers. A car that minimises distractions such as GPS, complicated stereos, pre-fitted mobile phone speaker units etc. I cannot help but think that the auto industry is only adding to distracted driving with all the add-ons that seem to grow with every new model.


  2. Nice post and great move by Mercedes. Good for the business (should break-even commercially), good for the brand and good for the consumer (some premiumization of the experience in a pretty cookie-cutter category). Will be good to know how the driving instruction experience compares with RAC, BSM etc. Does the value-add end at A-Class cars and the Mercedes branding or is there some difference in the core product also?

    Maybe a logical next step would be to offer good financing terms for a Mercedes car on successful completion of the driving test. From extended test drive/ trial to conversion!!.

    Opportunity for banks also to offer something on the same lines to educate the teens on good personal finance habits. And not just increase the quantity of their consumer base but also the quality (knowing that these people will perhaps be less of a credit risk courtesy the education).

    @Asit: Thanks for your comment. To find more about the relative driving lesson experience, some experimentation by the same person may be required 🙂

    On the financing offer idea, here is what I think. The brand’s premium association may mean that their customers, the learner-drivers, will be self-selected. Extrapolating from what I saw at MB World in Weybridge, Surrey, I doubt if many of those kids will need financing at all. But as I mention to @Syamant above, there may be a product opportunity associated with the ‘safer driving’ theme for Mercedes. Will they take it? Who knows? We have to wait and watch as the first batch of young drivers trained by them get on the road.

    Re banks: you probably already know that wealth management firms and private banks already offer financial literacy and networking opportunities with young persons of similar socio-economic backgrounds to the scions of wealthy families. The offering is super-premium at the moment. I know that one bank in Scotland does much financial literacy work in schools but it is not high profile. So the question is – can banks redeem their image by offering financial literacy, no longer as a premium or super-premium product offering, but as a universal skill available to all?


  3. Safety is a good thing, as is fun — but I can’t help seeing this another case of getting the kids hooked early, as the cigarette companies try to do.

    @Kathleen: Thanks for your note. For brands that can only pitch usefully to people above a certain age, “catching them young” is always risky. But unlike cigarettes – where the habit will damage the health of and potentially kill the smoker and several people around him/ her – safer driving, I believe, will reduce loss of life on the roads. But I can understand your point of view as a parent. But does pester-power really work in case of cars? I wouldn’t know. What do you think?


  4. Well, my kids could pester all they want for a Mercedes – unless we win the lotto, it’s not going to happen. 🙂 Safer driving I’m all for; it certainly benefits society. But I think our societal addiction to cars in the U.S. is possibly as unhealthy as cigarette smoking.

    @Kathleen: Thanks for your note. I too would have thought that as far as cars go, pester power isn’t likely to work.

    The American dependence on cars is of course a long-running discussion. I may have written about it earlier on the other blog but as a passionate user of public transport, I have strong views on poor urban design and flawed multimodal transport, together which necessitate that we take cars to absurd places such as gyms! Where I live the nearest gym takes about 50 minutes to walk on my rapid pace. So the only option is to drive.


  5. Shefaly, this is interesting. I think Merc is doing something really good as I too believe that learning to drive young makes very good drivers. All the best drivers I know started to learn when they were barely 12 or 13 although they did not actually drive on to the road. It’s the same with swimming I think. I always compare these two skills because I feel that these two skill you never forget once you have mastered them, and the earlier you start the better. From the marketing point of view I was reminded of Times of India’s NIE campaign where they are trying to inculcate the habit of reading newspapers at a young age and also pushing their brand at the same time.


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