Mercedes mimics mini: Smart launch uses untraditional tactics

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Mercedes-Benz USA will take a page from BMW Group's quirky, award-winning introduction of the Mini when it brings its Smart car to the U.S. in 2006.

Looking to get a big bang from a relatively small budget, Scott Keogh, general manager of Smart USA, will open an agency search next year. But even that won't be traditional. "We don't want to limit the launch of Smart to an advertising firm or an events firm," said the Mercedes veteran. Omnicom Group agencies already handle DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group and Mercedes-Benz USA accounts, but Mr. Keogh declined to say whether the holding company would have an edge.

Smart is "a unique car for people who really want to stand out," said Mr. Keogh. Its global ad tag: "Open your mind."

Smart's already been mimicking the untraditional tactics of both the Mini and Toyota Motor Sales USA's Scion. As official car of last month's ING New York Marathon, Smart loaned a dozen of its European two seaters to the event. The no-frill, bubble-shaped compact cars get superb mileage.

clever tactics

Mini advertising, from MDC-backed Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, has been lauded for clever guerrilla and grass roots marketing programs. The "Mini Ride," which toured the country in 2002, displayed the small cars as if they were children's rides and pasted them with signs reading, "Rides $16,860. Quarters only."

In an industry known for massive media spending, Mini's media budget is well, mini. It spent just under under $13 million in calendar 2002, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

Smart's first U.S. model, a small sport utility vehicle, will go on sale in fall 2006. Mr. Keogh said he expects to sell 25,000 of the SUV's in Smart's first year in the U.S.

Doug Scott, an auto analyst at Allison-Fisher said Mercedes-Benz and other European carmakers are eyeing Mini's success because BMW is getting premium pricing for a small car. BMW said it sold 32,505 Minis in the U.S. through November compared to 21,312 for the same period a year ago. "The Mini's success is obviously propelling premier manufacturers to consider the category," he said.

Smart bowed in fall 1998 in Europe with ads from Weber, Hodel, Schmidt, Zurich. The shop lost the account in a 2000 global review to Mercedes-Benz' lead European agency, Springer & Jacoby,Hamburg. Now with six models, Smart is sold in 30 countries around the world.

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