Icons, Luxury & Sustainability: Bettina Fetzer in conversation with Michael Köckritz

What is an icon? That often only becomes clear when you talk about it. And best of all, of course, when you are travelling in one yourself. Like ramp editor-in-chief and publisher Michal Köckritz who talks to Bettina Fetzer, Head of Communications and Marketing at Mercedes-Benz. In a SL. It's about icons, luxury and sustainability. Mercedes and brand values included, of course.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures

Icons unite the world of the idea and the realm of the supernatural with those things that are perceptible to the senses, becoming the manifestation of a divine world. If that seems a bit too abstract for you, you’re welcome to enjoy real icons in a figurative sense.

These inspire us as the embodiment of certain values and ideas, ideally as the condensed expression of a timeless way of life – which does not mean, however, that we should not be allowed to expand on the matter from time to time.

So when fundamental openness and memorable lightness are already inherent characteristics, that’s simply perfect.

A move is more than just changing location. You take stock of your inventory, leave the unimportant things behind, refurnish and reestablish yourself, so to speak. Nothing remains in the same place, you encounter many things differently, afresh and anew. A wonderful example of this is the ongoing move of the Mercedes-Benz Communications and Marketing department. And Bettina Fetzer, Head of Communications and Marketing at Mercedes-Benz AG, is using this occasion to reposition the brand for the future. The offices of the new headquarters in Stuttgart-Möhringen are full of moving boxes, just waiting to be unpacked. The modern and architecturally perfect exterior still houses predominantly empty offices and shelves ready to be designed and filled as desired.

We meet Bettina Fetzer, bright-eyed and friendly as always, in the company cafeteria that opened just a few weeks ago. A quick coffee and then we’re off. Unfortunately, her full workload only allows for a narrow window of time. The solution: a road trip interview. Fetzer’s black 1986 SL makes a perfect match to the topic at hand. Because our destination is Affalterbach. Where the successor to her R107 has now found a new home at Mercedes-AMG. Good thing the SL has always been sporty.

Tuning in, we’re already on the road.

Ms. Fetzer, we live in an era that is enormously influenced by change and new perspectives. What do you think will happen to the idea of the car? It used to be an expression of freedom, a declaration of independence on wheels.
It still is. Even more so. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many people back towards individual transport. And we have noticed this trend among our customers as well. But I also believe that individual mobility, why and where we drive private cars, will become more regulated in the future. Especially in urban areas, we will see the automobile being pushed back in certain places as the range of options becomes broader. And that’s okay. But there will always be a need for individual transportation. What we need to do now is make individual mobility sustainable, bring it to the right places and link it better with other mobility options. Then the car will continue to have its raison d’être in the coming decades. There is no question about that if you ask me.

Still, the general acceptance of cars is changing, isn’t it?
There are many aspects to the car. At Mercedes-Benz, we deliver mobility solutions with an emotional product. Let me give you an example to illustrate this point. We’ve got cars like the GLS that allow a mother of three to drive her children to school or to sports practice with an extremely high level of comfort. But a GLS also offers a sense of driving pleasure.

"Our task now, in view of the transition toward electromobility, is to make driving an electric car as enjoyable and as fascinating as driving one with an internal combustion engine. Indulgence without remorse, if you will."

Bettina Fetzer

But isn’t this good feeling already part of Mercedes anyway? How do you want to perpetuate that in the new world?
By turning back to our DNA. We have developed a luxury strategy for which, together with our head of design Gorden Wagener, I hung a picture from the 1950s on the wall showing Sophia Loren with a 300 SL Gullwing. We said to ourselves, “This is the DNA of our brand. We have to get back to this point.” And that’s what we’re doing at the moment. The majority of our brands and our products embody precisely this kind of luxury. Though it must be clear that this kind of luxury should always be sustainable.

Which is another aspect.
Exactly! Not to mention that the product must also feature state-of-the-art technology at all times. That’s a brand promise, and we deliver on that promise. The car must also be intuitive to use and it should help the buyer to deal with their daily challenges. On the other hand, it is also a highly emotional product. It has to emphasize that intangible “X factor”, as Gorden Wagener calls it. In other words, we have to incorporate that element of surprise and fascination that separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. In this way, we create desire for our brand on the product side. But we must also focus on image. That is of crucial importance.

We want to offer an absolutely seamless customer journey. We have to pleasantly surprise the customer when they encounter our brand. In the marketing or on-site at the dealership. Of course, this requires that we know and anticipate their needs. We’ve packed that into four key words: trust, ease, respect and love for the brand. There’s a reason why trust comes first: our customers have to be able to trust us. They have to be convinced that we will deal responsibly with them, with their data, and with our environment. That is an aspect of luxury to us. Overall, our understanding of luxury has nothing to do with bling, but rather with positive surprises for our customers that trigger an irrational desire.

Another part of luxury is the rebellious aspect, breaking with the rules.
Speaking only for my own department, that’s exactly what we’ve made our mission. And we’re pursuing a two-pronged approach here. On the one hand, we are looking after our classic Mercedes customers with activities that are not necessarily rebellious, for example with our involvement in golfing. On the other hand, we want to reposition ourselves as a luxury brand with a more communicative target group that we call cultural pioneers. These are people who decide what is contemporary and which brands are hip. They are the pioneers and trailblazers for everything that follows. Our collaboration with Virgil Abloh, who sadly passed away recently, falls into this category. Together, we created an off-road vehicle that looked as if the paint had been scraped off.

That spooked the classic Mercedes clientele a bit, didn’t it?
You could say so. But suddenly the collaboration was being reported on by media outlets that would usually be less interested in cars. From Vogue to Highsnobiety, you name it, it was there. Even Kylie Jenner took interest and reposted the project – and in this day and age, she is the kind of person who decides which brands are pioneering at the moment. So when she reposts us, it’s like winning an award. And we already have the next exciting projects in the pipeline. We’re going to tease out a lot more there. Another example: The film we just made to celebrate one hundred years of the Mercedes star was quite daring, but it generated a lot of positive feedback.

And has this strategy been internalized throughout the company?
I would put it differently. We have an incredible amount of freedom right now, and our creative people are doing things that they say would have been unthinkable years ago. I doubt that everyone at Mercedes-Benz already sees this rebellious aspect as a defining feature of the brand. But we simply have to be bold enough to position the brand in this direction. And we will need our bosses’ trust if we are going to do that. Our CEO Ola Källenius and Britta Seeger, who is responsible for Sales & Marketing, have shown us almost unconditional trust in this regard.

Is Mercedes cool?
Yes! [laughs]

What role does Mercedes-AMG play in people’s perception of Mercedes?
We don’t have just one brand, Mercedes-Benz, but a wonderful variety of brands. We have Mercedes-AMG, we have Mercedes-Maybach, we have Mercedes-EQ. We also have the G-Class, if you will. Each of these brands is very, very important. I like to call them halo brands because they create such a wonderful glow around the Mercedes-Benz brand. Of course, they address very specific target groups that we don’t always reach with the classic parent brand. In this respect, we also position these brands in the respective direction.

Mercedes-AMG is clearly positioned in the performance luxury segment, Mercedes-EQ in progressive luxury and Mercedes-Maybach in sophisticated luxury, a target group that is even more select and where we overemphasize one aspect of our brand in order to fit into the brand world of this target group. And Mercedes-AMG brings us full circle to the SL. It was originally a car for the racetrack, and we must never lose these genes, despite all the luxury and comfort we put in it. The SL brought the idea of performance to the brand.

How long have you owned your SL?
Since 2016. We bought it in Dubai.

That’s right. We’ve lived in Dubai twice. My husband and I met there twenty years ago, traveled around the world a bit, so to speak, and returned for a couple of years from 2013 to 2015. During that time, a friend of ours offered us this beautiful 107 because he hardly ever drove it in Dubai. On the spur of the moment, we said: “We think it’s beautiful, we’ll take it with us.” Here in Germany, I drive it regularly. Not every day, but there’s a child seat in it and we drive it. It’s a beautiful car.

The SL is widely considered to be the best roadster in the world. An icon?

And it still is today?
The SL will always remain an icon for us in our brand history. However, it is also our task to present this SL in such a way that, in addition to its substance as a product, it continues to exist as an icon and that it continues to have the same effect on people. The SL has had a massive impact on our history. It came out of motorsport in the 1950s, where it celebrated several great achievements. The company said at the time: “Let’s use it to make a super-light sports car for the road. There are people who want to experience these emotions in everyday life.” And that’s what the SL is. It is pure emotion on our roads.

"It was originally a car for the racetrack, and we must never lose these genes, despite all the luxury and comfort we put in it. The SL brought the idea of performance to the brand."

Bettina Fetzer

What does the new model mean for you personally?
The beauty of the SL is that it is not only a highly emotional car that conveys a pure sense of driving pleasure, but that it’s also absolutely suitable for everyday use. It offers the highest quality and a maximum level of connectivity. An absolutely comfortable and convenient car. And like any roadster, it also conveys a completely different way of life when driving compared, for example, to a station wagon or a classic C-Class sedan.

The radio is off at the moment. But do you ever listen to music while driving?
That depends on the situation. I like to talk when there are other people in the car. If I can’t avoid it, I hold meetings while I’m driving or make work-related phone calls. But if I have the opportunity, or I’m spending two hours on the road to Munich, for example, I usually have a small list of family members or friends that I call. That’s great. Otherwise, of course, I also listen to music – across the board in terms of genre. I like bands like The xx, I listen to the radio, sometimes Metallica. I don’t listen to classical music very much, though. In fact, I listen to country music more often. [laughs]

Sometimes I just love this simple world that country music portrays in the lyrics. You can’t take it all seriously, of course. It’s a bit like translating a schmaltzy romance novel into music. And that’s a lot of fun now and then in this hectic world, which is not always such a positive one.

How do you personally define luxury?
At the moment, luxury is the time I spend with my family, simply because I’m working a double job. But that’s the same for our customers. Which is why this time factor is so important when it comes to mobility. We have to be more conscious of our customers’ time. The car is increasingly becoming a third place in our lives, meaning you have one place where you live, another where you work, and in between there’s this space where you also live a part of your life: in your car. That’s actually a great honor, fascination and joy for us, to be able to design this space for our customers.

Talking about luxury earlier, we also touched on the subject of sustainability. What does sustainability mean to you?
First of all, it doesn’t mean having to give anything up. Yes, I am definitely more aware and live more sustainably today than I did in the past, and often that means having to make a compromise, but ultimately my life still has to feel good. In terms of our products, that means they have to be at least as fascinating, if not more so. We  are at a turning point here. We are taking people on a journey – alongside all the explanations that the electromobility revolution entails. That’s one part of it. On the other hand, luxury has in a way always been sustainable.

At the very beginning, when we were looking at the topic of luxury for the first time, we took a look at the various definitions. That’s very exciting, by the way. The German definition of luxury covers the opulent and extravagant. In other languages, luxury is seen as something that has a special value, a special quality and above all longevity. The great thing about luxury is that we not only offer things of contemporary value, but also create timeless objects. And you can see that wonderfully in this car. My 1986 107 won’t end up on the scrap heap so easily. Instead, I polish it by hand for two hours every Sunday, because it’s something that preserves and even increases its value. And that is very sustainable.

We’ve reached Affalterbach. And from what Bettina Fetzer has just said, our appointment with Philipp Schiemer promises several insights on the subject of sustainability. What we have planned, after all, is to wash a Mercedes SL with him. The new Mercedes-AMG SL. By hand, of course. But more about that in our Car Wash.

As you can see, we certainly know how to deal with narrow windows of time.

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