ast of the German brand interviews at the Frankfurt Auto Show, we now speak with Mark Langenbrinck, President of Mercedes-Benz France. As it was the case with Arnaud Barral at Volkswagen, a relaxed interviewee took my questions with bonne humeur and honesty.
BSCB: The A-Class is your best-seller in France but down 3% so far in 2015. Age? Increased competition? Transfer to the CLA sedan?
Mark Langenbrink: We are launching the A-Class facelift just now, so in terms of lifecycle I do think this is a very good performance for a vehicle that started in 2012, and I’m guessing your next question is about the B-Class (BSCB: Yep, -14%) so I will address it straight away: as you know we are not alone in this segment anymore… So even if the -14% today were coming from a “culturally close competitor” (wink), I think we are doing pretty well. Today when we talk to our dealer network, they tell us they are rather surprised at the sales hold of our compact cars given their lifecycle. This to us proves that we did not just launch a fashion with our new designs, these formats really do match a willingness of our customers to look for these formats. Our new models are triggering surprisingly strong traffic in our dealerships given our lack of communication out there except one TV campaign for our new SUV range. For the first time in 3 years, we have a ‘back to school’ period (BSCB note: September is the end of Summer holidays in France) without the “soufflé” effect of sales struggling to shake off the summer torpor.
BSCB: Staying on the A- and B-Class, where do your customers come from mainly? Are they 100% conquest models?
Mark Langenbrinck: Typically, our customers park outside and come in through the entrance door (deadpan breaks into a grin) and when we analyse where they come from, it varies a little with the model. On the A- and B-Class we have a conquest ratio of 50 to 60%, and this ratio has remained the same since the introduction of the current generations. Where do these new conquests come from if we focus on this figure a little more: around one-third come from the two colleague premium German brands, and the remaining two thirds come from mass market brands, some being quasi-premium. There is a real flux towards our brand and we see it clearly in the evolution of the premium segment on the French market. All three premium German brands show strong growth, us a particularly strong growth (BSCB: +10% vs. +4% for Audi and +15% for BMW), and the weight of the premium segment is getting stronger. This is necessary, as France has the weakest premium ratio in Europe.
BSCB: It took only a year for the C-Class to regain the #1 spot in its segment in Europe (#17 overall vs. #25 for the BMW 3 Series and #29 for the Audi A4). What are the reasons behind this tremendous success?
Mark Langenbrinck: We are right where we were hoping to be, which wasn’t a given because the sedan segment is declining in Europe. In China and the United States it is a more accepted, classical segment so its evolution is stable but in Europe it’s down. For us specifically in France, the station wagon is making us extremely happy: for years and year our SW sold around one-third the amount of A4 Avant and BMW 3 Series Touring, but we are now on par.
To explain the C-Class success, what we hear a lot from our dealers is a magnificent compliment but also an ambivalent one for me, responsible for the brand: very often the C-Class is considered as a small S-Class, in terms of comfort, design and quality of materials and finish, positioning itself clearly above its competitors in the segment. Our clients have experience in premium brands – it is very rare to enter the premium segment with the C-Class – and they really appreciate the vehicle’s quality. Typically, one third of our C-Class customers are attracted by the new generation and renewing their previous C-Class, one-third are coming from our compact cars, and a large one-third (not 50% but more than 33%) come from other brands. The success of the C-Class, although being clearly linked to the new model, I must be fair and say it is also partly linked to our two competitors’ lifecycle: the new A4 is coming next year and will be a great challenge for us.
BSCB: You just mentioned the success of the C-Class station wagon in France. You recently launched the CLA Shooting Brake. Success?
Mark Langenbrinck: Enormous success. We are very happy with how the Shooting Brake has started. We were not certain whether this type of vehicle would find its public in France given our traditional slight weakness in the station wagon segment. We now have two very good looking station wagons that are each positioned against a specific competitor. So the customer cannot argue anymore on how pricey the Mercedes station wagon is: the CLA Shooting Brake has a very dynamic profile and very young target and its price is a great selling point for us. If you want to go up a segment you can stay with us with the C-Class station wagon which is to me the best-looking C-Class SW we have ever produced.
BSCB: To finish let’s talk about your SUV range: with the GLA, GLC and GLE you now have a naming system that I imagine is easier to understand for the consumer…
Mark Langenbrinck: (big laugh) Dunno. There are two sides. On one hand you have people who know Mercedes naming codes and say it’s much better now, with the GL- indicating SUV and a direct link to the corresponding sedan. Other say squarely they couldn’t care less about the name, they come into our showroom, see the vehicles and choose from that. I’d say, “à chacun son plaisir” (To each his/her pleasure). We needed to link our SUVs, and for once we have found a logical way that indicates to people who know our A-, C-, E-, S- logic in which segment our SUVs find themselves.
BSCB: Your new naming works for me – I get it…
Mark Langenbrinck: There you go, but you are an expert – I mean, I won’t compare you with my father but if I ask “Dad? What do you think?” “Pfffft”. See, just yesterday I had a go at doing a radio ad for our SUV range. Now try and imagine the copy: “Now at Mercedes a complete SUV range with the GLA, the GLE, the GLE Coupe and the GLC.” Do you understand a thing? You do, but if you survey people here at the Auto Show… I don’t think they do. So I think it’s very important to have a range segmentation, but in terms of communication we focus more on the vehicle’s abilities. What is really important, you’ve seen it with the GLA and you will see it with the GLC, is that you we have one SUV for each need. We have eagerly waited for this moment – as you know with GLK sales we are now approaching anecdotic level, so with the beast we have in the GLC I think we are onto another hit.
BSCB: Are you able to communicate on GLC orders?
Mark Langenbrinck: What I can tell you is that we are in line with our targets, and as you know Dieter Zetsche has set the aim of being the #1 premium brand worldwide by 2020. I hope that in France we will reach this objective a little faster, and if you look at the growth rates we are achieving you will see that we are right on track. Right now we have one new launch every three months, so it’s all smiles for us.
BSCB: Do you see SUV sales growing further?
Mark Langenbrinck: I do. Because you have all the comfort of a sedan: thanks to hydraulic suspensions you don’t have this “effet paquebot” (liner effect) anymore, you have an elevated driving position that gives a feeling of safety and better orientation in the traffic, and we are in the process of eliminating the last drawback of SUVs with for example our GLE 350 E, a hybrid with only 60g of CO2 emissions. And for the 3% that want to venture in the countryside or the forest, they are still capable of doing so. Today there are no arguments anymore for not buying an SUV.