On May 22, 2019, Dieter Zetsche, the Chairman of the Board of Management and CEO of Daimler AG (the world’s largest maker of luxury cars) and Head of Mercedes Benz retired.
He had worked for the company for over 40 years, joining in 1976. Born in Turkey to German expatriates and an electrical engineer by trade, Zetsche left several indelible marks on the company as well as a legacy of both high and low points. All this is likely to shape the future of Daimler AG, as the company faces new vistas with opportunities such as alternate fuel vehicles (AFVs), autonomous (self-drive) vehicles, as well as a more protectionist anti-trade agenda that is settling across many of the company’s principal markets. It is perhaps a testament to these new opportunities (and challenges) that Zetsche’s successor is the 49-year old Swede, Ola Kallenius, the first non-German at the helm of the company, and who had a long stint heading Daimler’s R&D and the high-performance Mercedes-AMG divisions.
Known for his casual management style, skinny jeans, off-beat comments and his walrus moustache, as well as his ability to connect with cross-cultural teams at all levels of Daimler’s worldwide structure, Zetsche was a man of the people. While his retirement is more of a hiatus than a farewell (it is part of a mandatory two-year break required under German law which will eventually see Zetsche return as Chairman of the Daimler’s Supervisory Board in 2021), he will however not be a part of the company’s day-to-day management.
The high point of his farewell was the TVC made by Daimler’s long standing rival – BMW. The TVC features an uncanny lookalike of Zetsche on his last day at Daimler, bidding goodbye to a host of employees in signature across the board style. The ad focuses on Zetsche’s last day down to the chauffeur-driven Mercedes Estate sedan that drops him home. After seeing him off, Zetsche with a mischievous grin, opens his garage door and drives out in a BMW i8 Hybrid sports car. The screen cuts with the text Free at Last followed by: Thank you Dieter Zetsche for so many years of inspiring competition.
The ad has been celebrated as a masterstroke by BMW, particularly given the hard-fought rivalry between the two for dominance in the global luxury automobile market.
When Zetsche took over Mercedes, the carmaker was in the throes of a decline in its position as a top contender in the luxury car segment. It had not only lost the top-spot to BMW, it had also slid down to number three after Audi. Climbing back to number one was the centrepiece of Zetsche’s strategy and to achieve this, he made massive structural changes to Daimler and the Mercedes line-up, introducing new sports coupes, crossovers and SUVs aimed at younger, hipper demographic. He also inspired a youth-centric cultural shift at Mercedes (including branding himself as Dr Z – read ‘Zee’). The strategy worked and in 2016, Mercedes once again beat its arch-rivals to become the world’s best-selling luxury car brand, a title it has retained ever since.
Keeping that in mind, industry watchers believe the ad puts Mercedes and BMW on a pedestal above a steady stream of growing competitors in the luxury car market, ranging from Lexus, Audi, Infiniti and Acura and even Tesla. It also positions the two as the natural leaders fighting for dominance in the category. The ad further puts their longstanding rivalry in a friendly light; that of two mature brands at the top of their game with a great deal of mutual respect for the unremitting value and drive for excellence they both bring. This struck all the right chords with customers and the ad has become a viral sensation on social media.
Tariq Ziad Khan is a US-based marketer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team. firstname.lastname@example.org