The aim: to create fascination and brand identity
Strategy: lasting effects as opposed to short-lived trends
Living tradition: "gene pool" of brand-defining stylistic elements
At home on the road: the car as an individualised environment
It was back in March 1993 when Mercedes-Benz marked a new departure at the Geneva Motor Show. For the first time, the Stuttgart-based car brand placed the spotlight not on the latest technical innovations, but on a quite different topic – design. Mercedes-Benz presented a coupé study whose lines and design differed markedly from the models it had produced to date. In place of the conventional rectangular headlamps and the striking chrome-finished radiator grille, the coupé’s front design featured four oval headlamps, curved wings, and a radiator grille integrated harmoniously into the bonnet. Industry experts clearly recognised that these features heralded a new beginning. Mercedes-Benz went on the offensive – not only on a design level, but in terms of brand strategy, too.
Just two years later, the twin headlamp face was reality, launched on the E-Class in mid-1995. The message was perfectly clear: The appearance of the Stuttgart-based car brand as a whole was to become as attractive and dynamic as the saloon. The slogan employed at the time – "See Mercedes with new eyes" – was to be taken literally in two respects, with Mercedes-Benz advancing from a specialist for luxury-segment vehicles to an exclusive full-line manufacturer offering high-quality premium vehicles for a host of market segments.
This dynamic development process has a name: product offensive. In the space of a few years, the five model series (C-, E-, G-, S- and SL-Class) on which the product portfolio was based at the beginning of the 1990s grew into 15 model series comprising well over 110 variants. Mercedes' recent history demonstrates the importance of design to the brand's image and market success – whereby this applies equally to other brands, of course. As modern automobiles become increasingly similar on a technical level, the lines of the body and the interior colour design or appointments are emerging as the most important distinguishing features.
Design is of even greater significance to Mercedes-Benz, however – it is literally a trademark. Design has been shaping the image of the Mercedes brand for more than 100 years, visualising typical Mercedes brand values such as fascination, responsibility, and perfection. In this light, design performs important functions on two levels – and Mercedes design has been highly successful on both fronts for many years now: The lines of the automobiles not only ensure the appeal of the product, but also serve to reflect the philosophy and profile of the Stuttgart-based automobile brand. In other words: Design both visualises and shapes brand values.
Design must also appeal to the emotions, however, instilling enthusiasm for the automobile and making a model a true object of desire. "Love at first sight" has long become a slogan pinpointing a concrete reality for the automobile business. Design must not only arouse such positive emotions, but also sustain them over many years. The psychological tie evolves from recognition through identification to brand awareness. Beyond developing attractive and functional individual products, design thus also needs to create brand identity.
Identity and continuity
For Mercedes-Benz the subject of brand identity has always been a core task which is pursued with incomparable rigour. What is a typical Mercedes-Benz? What is the core of the Mercedes brand? These questions are easy to answer, as today everyone knows what a Mercedes looks like. But long-term strategies and conceptual continuity are necessary in order to develop and maintain such a successful brand image. While the design of Mercedes models should point the way to the future, their essential lines must not depart from their root origins. This ensures that every new Mercedes-Benz is provided with a distinctive identity and that its premium-brand provenance is immediately apparent. At the same time, this also means that fashion fads are no option for the Mercedes designers, as they lack the long-term effect that is integral to Mercedes-Benz. The product life of around 20 years which is quite realistic for Mercedes automobiles rules out short-lived design gimmicks. The high market value that Mercedes passenger cars retain even after many years is attributable not least of all to the fact that an earlier Mercedes-Benz does not look old. Even when follow-up models are premiered their predecessors do not pale in comparison, but remain desirable propositions, above all because their design is made to last.
A Mercedes-Benz will always be recognisable as a Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes designers devote meticulous care to ensuring that certain stylistic features always retain their essential design in the course of their ongoing development. In this connection, the designers refer to the brand's "gene pool", on which they draw to maintain and facelift the brand.
A good example here is the hallmark Mercedes radiator grille – a feature which has characterised and distinguished Mercedes automobiles for over 100 years. The design of the radiator grille has undergone continuous development over this long period. The designers endeavour to reinterpret both the basic proportions and the details of this identifying feature in order to create a fresh and modern appearance.
This principle applies equally to the sporty variant – the so-called SL radiator. This was adopted directly from motor racing in the 1950s, since when it has been a symbol for the Mercedes sports cars. Similarly to the saloon radiator, the design of this element is also subject to continual re-interpretation. Each of the five SL generations which Mercedes-Benz has presented since the legendary gull-winged model clearly demonstrates the relationship between tradition and progress: Although each model reveals recognisable analogies to its predecessors, its design has clearly undergone further development to herald a new design era.
Such a detailed approach keeps the design and brand image alive, innovative and dynamic while retaining their distinctive character. Mercedes-Benz has pursued this strategy since the mid-1990s, successfully establishing itself in new market segments, winning over new customers to the brand and also performing an important trend-setting role.
The twin headlamp face serves as an example here. It also put an end to the era
of rectangular headlamps among other car companies and was widely imitated throughout the world. This highlights the stylistic quality of this concept, which is applied with highly individual effects not only in the E-Class but also among other models at Mercedes-Benz, always giving rise to attractive and inspiring new interpretations – as illustrated most recently by the new generation of the CLS. In this way, Mercedes designers demonstrate continuity and creativity as they set new design trends. Undertaking perceivable modifications to established products without altering their essential character is another facet of the art of Mercedes design.
Adhering too strictly to this interpretative doctrine harbours a risk of sacrificing stylistic creativity to design continuity, however. This stifles individuality. Such drab uniformity is foreign to Mercedes-Benz. Every model – from luxury saloon, through coupé and roadster to compact car – has its own distinct personality. The well-known common design features are combined with new style elements which initially cause surprise. In conjunction with familiar elements they serve to continually recondition the way in which the Stuttgart automobile brand is perceived.
Trends and reality
Identifying and shaping trends are key tasks for car designers. They live in the present, but their real business is the future. This requires a very finely tuned understanding of changes in customers' habits, new attitudes to daily life and aesthetic or colour trends from other fields, such as the furniture or electronics industries. Other cultures also provide a source of inspiration. With this in mind, Mercedes designers work not only in Germany, but also in Italy, Japan, China and the USA. The Advanced Design Studios which the car brand has set up at all these locations serve as seismographs, recording and analysing stylistic trends and incorporating them into the creative process. In particular, this involves intuitively picking up on developments which might be suitable for incorporation into timeless design and acquiring an instinct for important, lasting trends in art, culture, and society.
Looking into the future and tracking down new trends in this way are not enough on their own, however. In view of the diverse and diffuse array of ideas on offer for the future, the question arises as to what trends are actually suitable as a source of inspiration for a brand such as Mercedes-Benz. It has always been of crucial importance for Mercedes-Benz to be modern without slavishly following the latest fashions.
It is thus important to distinguish short-lived trends from lasting developments, so as to identify customers' true future expectations. Rather than briefing on the latest trends, Mercedes designers thus need well founded forecasts and concrete answers to questions regarding how people will live tomorrow, what forms consumer behaviour will take and – above all – how future customers can be enthused. The challenge is thus to consider possible future developments, thereby thinking beyond the immediate reality shaped by trends and fashions.
Passion and rationality
This is perhaps the most important and interesting aspect defining automobile designers' work. The focus is on people – customers and their personalities. Motoring today is no longer simply a matter of reaching one's destination in safety and comfort. More than ever, the journey is expected to be an experience in its own right. An enjoyable experience, because the driver and passengers feel at home in the vehicle and the car suits the owner's personal lifestyle – and because the car provides a very good means of demonstrating this style to others.
In addition to market and social research studies, the Mercedes designers glean valuable pointers for new, future-oriented vehicle and design concepts in particular in conversation with motorists in all parts of the globe. A case in point is the CLS, which seamlessly and attractively embodies two different characters: The stylish fascination and strong emotional charisma of a coupé harmonise with the comfort and functionality of a saloon. As such, the four-door coupé chimes in with the ambitions of modern people who seek and value the exceptional and who also aspire to pronounced individuality, stylish aesthetics, and high lifestyle value in their choice of automobile. We thus aptly refer to the CLS as a "coupé for connoisseurs".
The focus on relaxation, security, wellness, pleasure, and aesthetics is characteristic of a specific lifestyle. Ever more people are striving to live life more fully and more consciously. They seek the "feel-good factor" and the finer things in life – and their car is no exception here. The sensual perception of a product plays a more prominent role than ever. This is confirmed by the worldwide market success of the CLS and other Mercedes passenger cars which meet these customer expectations.
Lifestyle and pleasure
Maintaining the appeal of attractive appointments over many years is a key task in the field of interior design and is acquiring growing importance for design work. The interior of a car is seen as an environment in which people spend a great deal of time. Ensuring a pleasant environment is thus also becoming increasingly important inside automobiles.
Customers have definitely become more demanding and sensitive in this respect in recent years. In addition to a diverse range of trims and appointments from which they can pick and choose according to their own individual tastes and personalities, they also attach special importance to high-quality materials and excellent workmanship. These communicate values such as aesthetics, comfort and quality in a directly perceptible manner in the context of the overall visual impression.
The aim of the interior design in Mercedes-Benz automobiles can be summed up in a few words: On boarding the vehicle and closing the doors, users should feel at home immediately. Surrounded by attractive forms, their eyes take in valuable, hand-crafted fine wood trims as they enjoy the feel of soft leather seat surfaces and the look of pleasant, warm colours. This is the world of Mercedes-Benz.
Form and function
For all their love of detail, automobile designers are not "wrapping artists" who are in the business of simply wrapping up new technologies or new vehicle concepts in attractive packaging. They are also instrumental in initiating future-oriented ideas and incorporating them into series production development. The previously mentioned four-door Coupé of the CLS is just one example in this connection. Mercedes-Benz's overall product offensive demonstrates how closely product strategy, design, and technology work together within the Stuttgart-based car brand.
Mercedes designers are integrated into the concept phase and the technical development process for new models right from the very outset. This, in turn, means that design work is teamwork – the design studio of a high-volume manufacturer is not a dream factory. Designers and engineers must be willing to reach compromises within this team, in order to arrive at viable solutions that meet all the given requirements. As such, automobile designers face far more difficult tasks than their colleagues in other branches of industry. The car is one of the few industrial products of which customers expect not only an attractive exterior but also a perfectly designed interior. In addition, the car is a product comprising different individual areas. Some of the details involved here are as complex as entire products in other industries.
Functionality and aesthetics, technology and craftsmanship – apparently contradictory attributes need to be reconciled in a modern automobile to produce a harmonious overall concept. This aim is achieved when design and engineering complement one another at a high standard. In this context, functionality and good design are not natural foes.
Technical innovations have always formed part of the brand's history at Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes engineers have written automotive history with numerous pioneering innovations: Crumple zone, ABS, airbag, belt tensioner, Electronic Stability Programme ESP®, PRE-SAFE® and other milestones of passenger car technology first went into series production at Mercedes-Benz. In other words, technology leadership is integral to the brand philosophy. The function of design is to visualise this leadership aspiration and to set trends in its own way.
Visions and emotions
Showcars, concept or research vehicles are also used to this end. They are designed and developed to lend concrete form to automotive visions, to test new vehicle concepts or technologies, to intensify the dialogue with customers and to analyse the public's reaction to such automotive ideas. Mercedes-Benz also carries out such car studies as a platform for exploring future styles and to offer designers a means of developing and realising new design idioms.
A look at the recent past of the Mercedes-Benz brand shows how such automotive visions can develop very swiftly into concrete series production projects. The CLS, the R-Class, and the SLR McLaren super sports car were all preceded by high-profile concept vehicles which made their mark above all by virtue of their design, thus preparing the ground for the introduction of the new model series to the public.
The F-Series sees the designers looking yet further into the future. These projects, such as the current F 800 Style, present new technologies to provide a foretaste of tomorrow's world of motoring. Providing these innovations with a design which is both future-oriented and appealing represents an exciting challenge for the team of designers working on these research vehicles. The aim is to create a harmonious composition embodying the three elements of expressive forms, new vehicle concepts, and unique technology. These projects thus call for particular imagination and creativity in order to reconcile design and technology.
From research vehicles to standard products – an automobile is always perceived on a sensual level. Its emotional impact is all-pervasive. Long before any technical data or innovations become apparent, desires are aroused by a car's appearance alone – that is, by its design. It is the designers' fascinating task to arouse these emotions and to keep them alive. The object of their work is to reconcile technology and design so as to develop automobiles which boast both technical and emotional intelligence.
The designers' work is successful when customers buy cars not on rational grounds alone, but on listening to their hearts and minds in equal portion.