Mark Ritson: Gullwings land Mercedes in lap of luxury

I was busted last week. The missus caught me, bang to rights, checking out the most gorgeous figure I’d ever laid eyes on. She had a stunning profile and the kind of derriere that makes men go weak at the knees. She was German, of course – it was unmistakably part of her feline assurance as she passed me.


Unfortunately, my wife knows I have form when it comes to German beauties. I’ve spent most of my weekends for the past five years with a beautiful model from Stuttgart, but this creature was clearly in a different league. I had seen her in a couple of photo shoots before but this was the first time in the flesh. And I was smitten. So smitten that by the time my wife clocked me, my mouth was literally wide open and the only sound she could get out of me was a soft, almost imperceptible, whimper.

She goes by the name of Mercedes, although her full name is Mercedes SLS AMG.

Yes, she is a car. Before you start accusing me of going all Clarkson on you, let me also confess that my passion for this sublime creation is only partly driven by a desire to drive her. My real interest is professional because the SLS is more than a work of motoring genius. It is also a branding masterpiece too. Eager students keen to learn the secrets of luxury branding would do well to study the SLS, and particularly its doors.

The doors are important because, aside from being the manner in which one enters and exits the SLS they are also a crucial part of its appeal. The doors actually rise vertically from the chassis of the car in a most alarming and satisfying way. The official terminology for them is flügeltüren (who says the Germans are not poets?). In English it translates to gullwing but either language will do because Mercedes invented both terms in 1952 when it launched the legendary 300SL – a car that was so close to the ground and streamlined that the only way to fit doors onto it was to have them rise above the roof on hinges.

As usual with luxury brands, creativity solved a production problem. And over time the fruits of that creativity became an indelible image for Mercedes. Or, as we like to say in luxury, Mercedes created a new code. Codes are a unique visual motif that are instantly associated with a particular luxury brand. Consumer goods brands have logos. But the vocabulary of luxury goods is much richer and more complex and they surpass their logo with a palette of instantly recognisable visual codes.

Burberry has check. Chanel has the camellia, the colour beige aligned with simple lines. Hermès has the saddle, the ribbon and a very particular shade of orange. And Mercedes has its flügeltüren.

The strategic role of codes in luxury branding is a crucial component in their management. Most brands are younger than the consumers that buy them, but many of the great luxury brands span centuries since their creation. With that immense heritage comes an enormous challenge: how to keep a brand that is five times older than its clients, fresh and exciting.

Too much modernity and the brand disrupts its connection with heritage and starts to erode its character. It might pick up short-term sales but it does so at the expense of longer term relationships and ultimately its prestige. Think Versace since the death of Gianni in 1997.

But play the game too conservatively, and you also lose. The brand stops evolving and you fall asleep under a dusty duvet of history and heritage. Think about any great British luxury brand while still under British management – Rolls-Royce, Aquascutum, Daks. British conservatism makes us, all too often, hopeless managers of luxury.

The solution to this apparent paradox of luxury brand management is to identify your essential codes and then to update them. Burberry took its iconic check and transplanted it from the inside of Japanese businessmen’s trench coats and onto the beautiful body of Kate Moss in the form of a bikini. Chanel took the camellia, painted it pink and used it as decor at one of their recent couture shows. Hermès… well just look at its print ads. The only school of advertising that counts is the one that Hermès teaches each month from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Each month every pixel of its latest ad is devoted to, and derived from, its codes.

By playing with codes, a kind of magic trick is performed. A luxury brand can tip its hat at its heritage and then gaze off into the distance at its future – in one strategic movement. To play with codes is to find the sweet spot between the rich history inherited from the founder and the modern success delivered by consumers.

And that’s why when I watched Mercedes SLS AMG last week I gazed not at her engine, or her curvaceous bodywork, or even the lucky, lucky man behind the wheel. I looked at its doors. Then I whimpered and, to the total and utter bemusement of my wife, let the word “flügeltüen” fall gently from my lips.

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