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[dusseldorf] Mercedes-Benz is breaking into the small car segment with the unusual strategy of advertising a product more than a year before anyone can buy it.

An estimated $30 million campaign started in Europe in May to create brand awareness for the upcoming $20,000 Mercedes A Class-priced at a fraction of the cost of one of the German carmaker's larger models. The ad slogan is: "A strong piece of the future."

"Mercedes-Benz has not been active in this segment," a spokesman said. "We do know from market research that people interested in a new car think about it at least 18 or 12 months ahead of the purchase. That is the reason why we started with an ad campaign so early."

BMW beat Mercedes into the segment with the BMW 3 Compact, introduced in 1994. And Volkswagen's upscale Audi division is launching its first compact, the Audi A2, this fall.

The Mercedes A Class will hit the streets at the end of 1997, and the company believes it has global potential.

"No decision has been made yet, but Mercedes-Benz is also considering launching the A Class car in the U.S. and Asia," said Jochen Placking, Mercedes' Stuttgart-based manager-car marketing international. "We are convinced that the car will sell well."

Mercedes plans to produce 200,000 A Class cars a year.

Springer & Jacoby, Hamburg, 35 is the lead agency and is adapting the TV, print and outdoor ads into different languages. Mr. Placking said FCB, Paris, has helped to plan the strategy for the prelaunch campaign.

The print ads position the new Mercedes compact as the safest small car ever built. The ad claims it will be as safe as Mercedes' other, heavier models, based on computer crash simulations.

A :45 TV spot plays on Mercedes' heritage. A voice-over recalls Carl Benz's "little" invention of the first internal combustion engine for cars in 1886. The spot cuts to cars through the past century, including the Volkswagen Beetle. The final shot is the new Mercedes, with voice-over: "In 1996, Mercedes-Benz has another `little' invention."

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