MERCEDES E-CLASS EMBARKS;CARMAKER TRIES OUT HUMOR, CD-ROM IN MODEL LAUNCH EFFORT

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Oh, those lighthearted German luxury automakers.

A few years ago, their no-nonsense advertising invariably centered on engineering, safety, performance and prestige. Now, the once-austere Germans show signs of a personality transplant.

The launch effort created by Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, for the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class line of sedans illustrates the trend. In one commercial breaking Nov. 13, the driver is enjoying his car so much that he doesn't even slow down when he encounters model Paulina Porizkova hitchhiking, a group of aliens or even Ed McMahon holding up an oversized check that announces the driver has won $10 million.

Another commercial features designers Isaac Mizrahi, Bill Blass and Donna Karan giving their thumbs-up to the car's styling; in a third, flying cupids turn head over heels at the sight of the car.

The estimated $40 million marketing effort, the biggest ever for Mercedes, begins Nov. 8 with a teaser spot using vintage photos of Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Yul Brynner and Gary Cooper with their Mercedes-Benz models-"all born too soon" to enjoy the new E-Class.

The E-Class launch also includes extensive magazine and newspaper advertising, a "time-release" CD-ROM, a World Wide Web site going up this month, in-theater and in-flight advertising, and product displays at malls, airports and football stadiums.

"In the past, Mercedes-Benz was an icon on a pedestal, admired as the best car in the world," said Michael Jackson, exec VP-marketing, service and sales for Mercedes-Benz of North America. "We had to find a way to be a bit more approachable, contemporary and friendly."

Mercedes and Lowe began a year ago building a platform for a hipper image with commercials like one that used Janis Joplin singing, "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?"

In the last year, Porsche Cars North America, Audi of America and just this month BMW of North America also have begun using humor in their advertising.

"We're happy with our brand identity, but we had some concern that we were considered a little bit inaccessible, remote and cool," said Jim McDowell, VP-marketing at BMW.

As a group, the upscale German car marketers got a comeuppance in the early 1990s with the explosive growth of Japanese luxury brands Acura, Infiniti and Lexus.

Sales are up this year for all four German brands. John Bulcroft, president of the Advisory Group, a Cresskill, N.J., marketing consultancy, attributed the comeback to strong products and better price positioning vs. Japanese makes, whose stickers have gone up because of the strong yen.

Mr. Bulcroft doesn't endorse humor as necessarily the most effective way for the companies to expand their audience.

"These companies have a reputation for making terrific automobiles. But if somebody climbs in an automobile and finds it's not as hip as it's been positioned in advertising, there's a danger of being disappointed," he said.

But for Mr. Jackson, expanding the Mercedes audience means retooling the company's image with women and baby boomers. That's a key to Mercedes reaching an ambitious sales goal of 125,000 units a year, up 66.7% from a projected 75,000 units this year.

Reaching them will involve more non-traditional marketing efforts, such as the time-release CD-ROM created by the Designory, a Long Beach, Calif., graphics design company working with COW, a Santa Monica-based interactive communications company.

More than 30,000 CD-ROMs were delivered to prospects who responded to a direct mail effort by Lowe Direct that went out to 300,000 households.

Beginning Nov. 4, more information packets became available to disc users each day; as of Nov. 8, the full package can be accessed, including a five-minute video on the experience of driving the car.

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