Why Mercedes needs to shape up and think thin

A shift in consumer tastes away from products associated with fat people is good for Hyundai but a disaster for DaimlerChrysler, writes George Pitcher

Anyone familiar with amateur psychoanalysis will be aware of those games that ask questions like “if so-and-so was a car, what sort of car would they be?” Consumers might be depressed to know just how widely variants of this are deployed to design and develop products for them. But a more pertinent game these days is to look at the products and ask what kind of person they would be.

I guess the Volvo estate would be a provincial headteacher. The new Mini might be a suburban hairdresser. I don’t know what Saab drivers do for a living, but I can confidently say that they play golf (unlike VW Golf drivers, who play for pub hockey teams). And I don’t know specifically what jobs Mercedes drivers have, though I suppose that they are ambitious executives. But this I do know – they are fat.

Now, I’m sure that DaimlerChrysler’s customer research facilities in Stuttgart – or wherever – could furnish me, if they were bothered to, with incontrovertible, empirical evidence that purchasers of their motor cars are lithe and lissome high achievers, with a higher than average representation in white-water rafting, pilates and the organic lentil soup industry.

But I’m my own focus group here and my perception is that the person behind the wheel of a Mercedes has a body mass index that outperforms the FTSE and is more likely than other drivers to be touching the steering wheel with inappropriate parts of their body.

Before anyone starts on at me that this is a symptom of my Little Englander xenophobia, which reveals an outdated and offensive view of a German diet that is overly dependent on sausages and beer, I should point out that my unscientific intuition does not yield similar results for other German marques.

BMWs are driven by flash young people who collect AirMiles (and need to book only one airline seat for themselves). Audis have thoughtful and pale people with rimless spectacles in them, who have probably done something pioneering in computer software. But Mercedes say to me something big about weight and ample girth. I expect Jeremy Clarkson likes them.

It may be something to do with those big and practical dashboard dials that look as though they’re designed for large, putty-like fingers. It may be that the cars themselves have always looked heavier than other cars and have seemed under-powered in the lower ranges, like an overstretched cardiovascular system dragging around some corpulent, waistcoat-stretching fat cat. And I expect I’m not entirely unrepresentative of the market in the expression of these views.

The Mercedes E-Class range, which accounts for about a quarter of all the marque’s sales, looks like it could bomb in the US after the influential Consumer Reports magazine placed it last in a survey of customer choice (albeit on reliability). Meanwhile, Mercedes’ Smart brand has suffered heavy losses. Again, I’m not surprised – it looks like a fat parent’s child, all over-proportioned in the wrong places and ready to explode into an overindulged and obese adulthood.

I’m sorry to pursue this fatness theme, but my proposition is that the glacial shift of consumer tastes away from products associated with obesity has implications well beyond the food industries. There are complex psychologies at work here, and not of the amateur kind. The popularity of sports utility vehicles (SUVs), for instance, has more to do with their alleged security and sportiness than with their size, which means that any jeans seen jumping out of them are unlikely to be overstretched. (On a side note, since they’re a bit of an urban fad, I suspect that SUVs will soon have had their day in any case).

There is also something about the resurgence in popularity of South-east Asian motor car brands that supports my case. That Consumer Reports survey ranked South Korea’s Hyundai as top brand – and this was a company that quit the North American market in the late Eighties because it was treated with contempt in the age of conspicuous consumption. Hyundai’s sales in the US grew by nearly 15 per cent in the first two months of this year.

The observation I would make here is that, whatever qualities one might associate with Asian lifestyles, obesity isn’t one of them. I would further note that DaimlerChrysler’s close trading relationship with Hyundai broke down last year and the German-American company sold its 10.5 per cent stake – or, to put it another way, the fat cat no longer lies with the lean hound.

I know it’s not the most sophisticated commercial reasoning, but I return to my point that the obesity debate has wider implications than questions about what and how we eat. Manufacturers of any product with a high-fat image may have to face a lean future.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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