How Mercedes failed it and Nike nailed it.

What we can learn from Mercedes’ brand blunder and Nike’s brand success.

A few days ago I saw two brand ads on TV that, because of their proximity to each other, stood in stark contrast to one another. One, by Mercedes Benz, did their brand a massive disservice on many levels. The other, by Nike, not only bolstered but elevated the brand even further. So what can we learn from these two spots? Let’s start off with Mercedes.

What not to do: Mercedes Benz

Millennial-focused

In the spot above, Mercedes Benz makes some very odd choices. For starters, this ad is clearly targeted at “millennials.” How do we know this? Because every single person that says “Hey Mercedes…” is clearly under 40. Marry that with the visual style of the ad and you get what it looks like when someone over 40 tries to make a TV spot for people under 40. Yet at the same time, it clearly signals “not for you, old person.”

The worst part is that using “millennial” as your only targeting is dumb. Why? Because the term “millennial” is merely shorthand for “males and females, ages 23–38,” that’s it. If you use that term to imply any psychographic attributes you are doing yourself a disservice. Not to say demographics are worthless, but they have to be married to psychographic (behavioral/attitudinal) data to be of true value.

Takeaway: Pandering to stereotypes of an entire generation can not only turn off said target but also signal exclusion to those who are not in that generation even though they might align with some of the concepts in your ad and benefits of your product or service.

Denigrating your own brand

First off, let’s set aside the fact that every “Hey Mercedes…” line sounds like it is lifted directly from answers to a consumer research question like, “What are your objections to wanting to own a Mercedes Benz?” The bigger issue is that these actors are popping off what people find objectionable about the Mercedes Brand. This serves to denigrate anyone who has bought a Mercedes Benz car already which is not a good look. “But they’re going after a younger demographic!” you might say. First, go back and re-read the targeting section above. The thing is, this is a Mercedes Benz commercial. So in essence, they are saying these things about themselves. This can work. After all, Domino’s did an entire campaign denigrating their brand however they did it as part of a larger initiative that paid off the promise of that campaign.

Takeaway: It’s almost never a good idea to give your target audience a reason to not like your brand — even if you think these negatives are common knowledge. The exception is if you are truly introducing a massive change.

The Reveal

Ta-da? A quick glance at the new A-Class reveals that is a slightly sportier Mercedes Benz but still undeniably a Mercedes Benz. From all outward appearances, it suffers from many of the same issues the people in the commercial were railing against. Yes, the interior has been completely redesigned but we barely get a glimpse of it. And yes, you can now talk to a built-in voice assistant like Alexa, Siri, and Google.

If you visit the A-Class page on the Mercedes Benz website, you see that there are a lot of things that they’ve re-imagined. Many of which that would be appealing to potential buyers and not just to “millennials.” In fact, the A-Class was introduced to expand market share with those that may have not considered them before. So, the question is, why is that not the focus of the commercial?

Takeaway: Focus on benefits that can apply to anyone within your psychographics. Don’t spend precious seconds not showing or talking about the multiple benefits the product has. People aren’t going to buy because of posturing, they’re going to buy on benefit (even if aspiration is the benefit).

How Nike Got It Right

Shifting gears, let’s look at Nike’s brand ad now.

I don’t know Nike’s brand promise. Chances are that if I did, I would be under NDA and couldn’t share it. If I had to guess, I would say that their brand promise is about helping people see that there is greatness in themselves, far beyond what they perceive. If you look at every commercial starting with the first “Just Do It” ad that featured an octogenarian who ran 17 miles every day, all of them tie back to this core notion of you can do more than you think.

So against this brand promise, we see Nike point out all of the sexism that women face in the world of sports and encourages them to be better than they ever thought possible. And while it is clearly targeted toward women, it also signals to the rest of the world, “this is messed up, you can do better too.”

It is a holistic expression of the brand that starts with what seems to be insurmountable negatives and ends in a crescendo of encouragement.

Takeaway: If you understand what your brand promise is, you can clearly express it in multiple ways that can have a long-lasting positive impact on the brand.

Bottom Line

Pure brand marketing is a bit tough. It acts to remind consumers not only that the brand exists but what it stands for. Knowing the brand promise and brand attributes is the first step. Applying them well is the second. In the case of Mercedes Benz, we see a company going out of its way to knock itself down in an attempt to elevate one of its car lines. In the case of Nike, we see a company perfectly expressing their brand by building aspiration and encouragement. Be more like Nike.


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Big thanks to Gary McMath, Marc Roeger, and Christine Nagel for the editorial feedback and gut-checking.