Mercedes-Benz has redesigned its model lineup, lowered it prices and loosened up its brand image in the last seven years. Now, the automaker is testing a marketing program that will enable it to zero in and target a more diverse audience with rifle-shot accuracy.

In other words, Mercedes-Benz USA's advertising and marketing message is going local.

“We want to do more event marketing, rather than just advertising because we have to do more than say, “Here we are,’” says Gary Dove, general sales manager at the Gordon Auto Group in Silver Springs, Md. “And we have to advertise in more than just golf magazines.”

In a 50-50 joint venture with its dealers, Mercedes-Benz has asked Footsteps, its New York-based African American advertising agency, to craft local advertising and marketing campaigns that target affluent black car buyers in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

“The reason we're doing it is that the market has changed, the definition of luxury has changed and we're working extremely hard to be a more expansive, inclusive brand,” says Scott Keogh, manager of communications, planning and advertising at Mercedes-Benz USA.

He adds, “If we're going to go into these markets and try and be more relevant to those markets, to the dealers and to the target groups, we had to be more inclusive than what we were doing.”

In that endeavor, Footsteps has put together a three-part advertising and marketing campaign that is being rolled out in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, cities with sizable populations of affluent African-Americans with annual incomes of $75,000 or more.

The primary medium being used to reach them is radio, which has a 96% penetration rate in the target audience, says Verdia Johnson, president of Footsteps.

“Affluent African-Americans view TV less than people in the same income bracket and educational level in the general market,” she says.

Footsteps is also placing national print ads in black newspapers, tagged with the dealer names and locations that serve the respective markets. The ad agency is planning event marketing campaigns this fall tied to homecoming football games at three historically black colleges in and around the targeted cities: Baltimore's Morgan Stage University, Philadelphia's Cheney State College and Washington's Howard University.

“We held a number of meetings before hand, spoke to the dealers, spoke to market managers, showed them the creative, went back and forth probably four or five times on the media plan and it's been absolutely one of the more successful engagements of putting all three of these parties together,” says Mr. Keogh.

Jeffrey Penn, owner of Mercedes-Benz of Annapolis, Md., says Mercedes-Benz is driving its marketing message down to the local level and is making it more intimate and relevant to the audience the automaker is trying to reach — in this case affluent blacks.

Mr. Penn says the new initiative allows him to piggyback his advertising and marketing initiatives onto the advertising and marketing that Footsteps is using to target blacks in the Baltimore market.

Right now, the campaigns feature the E class model and the Mercedes' used-car program, Starmark.

Mr. Keogh says the C class will be added later this year to the ad campaign. Still, the vehicles must be positioned to fit the target audience's needs.

For instance, the Mercedes-Benz M class sport-utility's general market position is “safety, safety, safety,” says Mia Paterno, Footsteps' Mercedes-Benz account director. “That won't appeal to our audience. They figure of course it's safe, it's a Mercedes.”

So Footsteps is currently working on how to position the M class in the three test markets using its research which shows that many blacks tend to buy SUV's because they are big, powerful, strong and rugged.

At the end of the year, Mr. Keogh says that Mercedes-Benz will examine what worked and what didn't. Then, in 2002 it plans to expand the program into other markets.

Asian and Hispanic components will also be added.

Essentially, Mercedes-Benz USA is developing a template that can be used to target specific audiences at the local level.

“We have dealers that are very excited about it, a market that is really ready for it and a target group that we thought would be receptive,” says Mr. Keogh.