MERCEDES TRIES OUT 'DESIGNO' PACKAGES

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Mercedes-Benz of North America will roll out a "mass customization" program called designo this summer, in an effort to add sparkle to its three-pointed star in the U.S.

Designo Edition versions of the new S-Class sedan are scheduled to move into showrooms late this summer, spreading to the CLK, E, SL and SLK models through the fall.

Priced from $4,000 to $7,000 above sticker price, the designo packages include custom leather interiors and distinctive paint colors, such as electric green and copper.

'TRULY EXCLUSIVE'

Calling designo "truly exclusive," VP-Marketing Joe Eberhardt said the automaker expects to sell fewer than 3,000 units per year in the U.S.

But, Mr. Eberhardt added, designo vehicles will be an important step in Mercedes' effort to enliven its brand identity.

In the early 1990s, Mercedes--feeling heat from Japanese luxury cars such as Lexus--took stock and found that potential customers respected its brand but weren't inclined to buy its cars, he said.

"We were stodgy, we were aloof," Mr. Eberhardt said. "We were perceived as a great quality product that was up on a pedestal."

In response, the automaker revamped its model lineup, injected humor into its advertising and ventured into new product categories, such as the M-Class sport-utility vehicle.

'FUN TO DRIVE' POSITIONING

Designo "fits perfectly into our product-management strategy and our communications strategy," Mr. Eberhardt said. It's meant to provide Mercedes entree to younger buyers, those seeking "fun to drive" cars and car owners who want to differentiate themselves, he added.

Designo vehicles will be interspersed in Mercedes advertising and supported with collateral materials in dealerships. Merkley Newman Harty, New York, handles.

Mercedes also will use events to get the vehicles in front of potential buyers. A designo, for example, appeared on the runway at fashion designer Betsey

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