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Why a Brilliant Campaign Backfired on the Mercedes Brand

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Frankie Margotta, strategist at Siegel+Gale delves into how Mercedes 'Nature or Nothing' campaign went global for the wrong reasons

Why a Brilliant Campaign Backfired on the Mercedes Brand

Now more than ever, internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) are taking a backseat to their electric successors as legacy automakers continue to roll out not only one or two electric model offerings but entire vehicle classes and divisions. Such brands as Ford, Volvo, and Porsche, among others, are already publicly committing to phase out anywhere from fifty to one hundred percent of their ICEVs within the next eight years. Yet, for some, the shift to electric isn't all green.

Mercedes finds itself on the receiving end of greenwashing accusations and a stinging counter-campaign that flips communications the brand deployed for Mexican Earth Day, which, according to Mercedes, was not intended to be translated and launched globally. The original 'Nature or Nothing' campaign, created by Leo Burnett Columbia, is a riff on the Mercedes brand promise of 'Best or Nothing' and a direct nod to its fully electric EQ class. The still ads and campaign video use a backdrop of various natural environments. The outer circle of the Mercedes emblem is overlaid in white, and its iconic three-pointed star centre is completed by patterns found in the backdrop, such as a lion's mouth or the veins of a leaf.

The counter response launched by Wherefrom - a review platform that scores company and product sustainability based on crowdsourced ratings - implements the same concept and style as the Nature or Nothing campaign but swaps the images of a healthy ecosystem with blunt, graphic depictions of barren, polluted realities. Whether warranted or undeserving, the response still comes as a gut-check for Mercedes and a reminder for organisations everywhere in the power of brand.

Where Mercedes missed the mark

We can glean a few takeaways from Mercedes, the first considering the foundational campaign insight of always there, which is described as the revelation that the Mercedes logo has always been present in nature. Although it's a great design strategy, the idea doesn't reconcile with the brand's lavish, high-end, high-performance perception, nor does it help educate audiences on what's changing and why they should believe it. Instead, luxury is just reframed as a vision for a nature-focused future and rationalised through the logic of planet earth being our greatest human luxury.

At this point, electric isn't as much an innovation as it is an inevitability. Sure, Mercedes has some historical proof to leverage, like its 1907 Mercedes Mixte hybrid experiment. But these are still uncommon occurrences for Mercedes that feel more like coincidence than a credible claim. The promise of Nature or Nothing becomes even more diluted when considering the success of electric rivals like Tesla, Polestar, and the legislative EV mandates across the United States and Europe.

The second takeaway is that every potential touchpoint, big or small, official or unofficial, contributes to the overall perception of a brand. Mercedes has made it clear that there was no intention to run the campaign globally, yet somehow, it did. In the aftermath, Mercedes is still being held accountable for the communication and left with consequential impacts on its brand. The controversial response to the unofficial dissemination could indicate that the issues at hand are inherently deeper than any inconsistencies in translation.

Brands are built through real experiences

These ads were not poorly conceived or executed; on the contrary, they're brilliant. Leo Burnett Columbia's campaign captures a powerful, relevant idea, simplifies it, and brings it forward through pointed, emotive creative expressions. And despite greenwashing accusations, there's evidence that Mercedes is taking real action toward environmental, social, and governance issues - at least in a way comparable with their peers. The failure ultimately stems from the perception that the Mercedes brand is not true to the campaign's promise.

At Siegel+Gale, we think about brand as a promise, delivered. Done well, a brand will embody its promise and, over time, become associated with a common understanding or feeling. Defining an enduring promise to serve as the foundational bedrock for an entire organisation that spans widening portfolios, societies, and cultures is challenging—and still only half the equation. Despite a shared ideology that simple brands win, my colleagues and I recognise that simple brands must ultimately exist across a complex, ever-evolving landscape of touch points and interactions. Crafting a promise and greater brand strategy is essential, but it isn't enough. 

Although brand often begins as a single impression - like walking into a physical location or signing up for an account - it evolves into a cumulative ecosystem of experiences that, individually and collectively, deliver or default on that core promise or idea. A promise itself should resonate, but a brand is ultimately measured on its ability to bring its promise to life. While one could argue that customers, partners, and even some internal stakeholders won't know an organisation's promise verbatim, they comprehend the essence. More importantly, they know when something doesn't feel right, as was the case with Mercedes.

Time will tell if this is a great first stride or a misstep. Perhaps Mercedes can further educate the world on past examples of sustainable innovation to make its claim more credible. Maybe it leans into its legacy as a world-class ICEV automaker that is more than ever committed to delivering high-performance, luxury vehicles responsibly and sustainably. Whatever the direction, it will ultimately be supported or vetoed by the perception of the Mercedes brand, which will be strengthened or weakened through the sum of its actions and experiences.

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Siegel+Gale, Wed, 14 Sep 2022 08:57:28 GMT