Steve Rossi knows something about pitching a brand to a broader audience. His first job as chief of communications for Mercedes-Benz of North America was to market the M-Class, beginning shortly after his arrival in late 1995.
The suggestion that the German luxury car producer should cater to rugged individualists who actually get their boots muddy bordered on blasphemy for many Mercedes purists.
But the M-Class was a success — partly because it was inexpensive (compared to other Mercedes cars) and because U.S. buyers were nuts about sport/utility vehicles.
Mr. Rossi learned that brand image does not have to be sacrificed at the altar of low price and high volume. The experience would prepare him for a completely new set of challenges today.
He has eight months on the job as president and chief executive ofPerformance Technologies in Livonia, MI. And once again, Mr. Rossi wants to drive his company to greater visibility by leveraging the racing-rich McLaren name to sell performance through several avenues.
Under the namePerformance, the company intends to sell product on the aftermarket — everything from complete “crate” engines and cylinder heads to ancillaries such as filters, superchargers and batteries. Mind you, McLaren isn't known as a mass producer of anything but for testing automotive powertrains and components and, over the years, for building “onesie” race car engines.
To fill this void, Mr. Rossi is working on strategic alliances to lend the McLaren name to performance parts (for instance, exhaust systems, brakes and wheels) produced by other suppliers with mass-market capability.
He hints that the company is considering an acquisition that would make McLaren the “category killer” in the performance aftermarket.
Mr. Rossi says the alliance strategy is win-win: McLaren gets mass-market exposure, and the partner moves into a premium parts sector. “We've got a brand and the ability, I believe, to be the Sharper Image catalog in the automotive aftermarket — the McLaren brand.”
The crate motor business also holds enormous potential for McLaren, as car buffs have limited options when looking for new engines for their classic rides. Mr. Rossi ought to know, having owned or restored more than 40 vintage cars. At 46, it helps to be an engineer by training.
“Where's the crate motor for the guys who are doing the Camaros? Where's the small-block Chevy? Where's the big-block Chevy?” he asks. “OK, GM's got a program, but on the other hand McLaren's got a program.”
And McLaren, with its engineering heritage, has an advantage that means something to gear heads. “We can market engines that are dyno-tested on the infamous McLaren dynos,” Mr. Rossi says with excitement. “You know, give the guy the horsepower curve. You can frame it and put it on your wall.”
The other key to Mr. Rossi's strategy is to offer a series of “Powered by McLaren” niche vehicles — production vehicles that are taken back to the shop for high-performance enhancements — more than a token 20 hp. Think of a McLaren version of a Lincoln LS,Civic, Eclipse or a Chevy Silverado to compete with the F-150 Lightning.
Unlike competitors in this niche segment (Callaway, Roush, Saleen), McLaren doesn't want to be identified with a particular brand.
“It would be pure performance,” Mr. Rossi says. “We envision it to be something very similar to what you see out of (Mercedes) AMG.” The focus would be on intake, exhaust and cylinder heads.
To keep the novelty high, McLaren plans to work with one dealer in each major U.S. market. “We'll give that dealer something to sell that the other dealers don't have,” he says.