How Mercedes’ big bucks’ Van Experience LIVE’ marketing exercise continues to pay dividends.
It is difficult to make vans fun and sexy – for many operators they are a necessary evil that has to be bought to carry on in their field of work – be they large fleets or small, single vehicle operators.
Mercedes-Benz have risen to the challenge for their annual Van Experience fortnight – now interestingly rebranded ‘Van Experience LIVE’ for the first time this year – and succeeded in making vans both interesting and fun.
How big is big bucks?
Mercedes-Benz does not release details of the cost of their events, but to rent an automotive proving ground for two weeks, construct a series of temporary buildings, ship in Mercedes 221 vans and six competitor vehicles, (plus an Actros and half a dozen cars), employ some 20 or so trained specialist drivers, feed, entertain and reward some 2,000 customers and dealers will not be cheap.
What’s the objective?
Despite the fact that the event is in its eleventh year, what may be surprising is that more than half of the visitors have never been to the event before. This means that recently reorganised Mercedes-Benz vans business unit has directly reached around 10,000 operators over the last decade with this initiative.
Having such a large captive audience available to focus on your products 100% must be priceless. But let’s face it, standing in front of customers, talking about safety systems with nothing but a standard PowerPoint presentation would be on the dry side.
So Mercedes-Benz have thought long and hard about how to make the most mundane of features, such as parking sensors interesting, whilst simultaneously justifying the price differential involved with the systems.
Who can attend?
With the exception of press invitations, the guests are invited by the Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle dealers, each of which are given an allocation of tickets. The allocation depends upon the dealer’s typical van sales volumes, their geographical location and requires that the dealer bring a mix of both existing customers and prospects for a mix of vehicle sizes. The dealer is also expected to pay for their tickets to contribute to the cost of the event – and also to ensure that they actually arrive and don’t just send their mates along for a jolly.
Kicking off with the ubiquitous tea and bacon roll plus compulsory PowerPoint presentation is Steve Bridge, wannabe stand up comedian and recently promoted Mercedes-Benz vans boss.
Bridge uses his light hearted presentation to introduce the senior team in an attempt to keep them from the Mercedes-Benz ivory tower in the minds of the customer and, of course, to introduce some relevant Mercedes-Benz van propaganda. This includes a summary of the recent reorganisation and the VanPro initiative, which already boasts four dealers accredited, with sixteen more dealers proceeding through the system.
The electronic wizardry that controls the ESP systems on Mercedes is like buying an insurance policy, you hope that you’ll never need it, but when you do need it you want to make sure that it’s a good one.
One of the four demonstration buildings
The benefits of these systems are usually as invisible to the customer as the systems themselves. Not so when you have a private circuit and a series of tame racing drivers.
Passengers were treated to a 50mph trip down a disused airfield straight which ended in a ‘no brakes’ collision avoidance manoeuvre – firstly with the ESP system on and secondly with the system overridden.
And with no ESP…
An adrenalin rush certainly for the passengers, but Mercedes-Benz was able to achieve the impossible by demonstrating something invisible and demonstrate safety leadership at the same time. The waiting area was full of van operators talking about the difference an ESP system can make. Objective achieved.
Not content with allowing guests to be hurled around the inside of a Vito or Citan, the MB vans team devised a clever way of allowing the guests to demonstrate the Collision Prevention Assist (CPA) system whilst at the wheel of a Sprinter themselves.
The CPA system scans the road ahead looking for objects getting closer and the driver doing nothing about it. When the object is about 90 metres away the system starts to act, setting off a warning buzzer and a light. It relies on the driver then applying the brakes. When this happens, the van takes over and applies them even more aggressively to avoid the collision.
The tricky part was removing the instinctive knee-jerk reaction that comes when approaching the rear of a vehicle – a reaction that has been ingrained into an experienced driver’s mind over decades. If the driver does something, the system will not kick in. That’s why I careered into the back of the moving target. Twice.
There can be fewer things duller than watching someone park and nothing more difficult than selling a £1700 accessory on a van. The Van Experience team managed to spice it up a little, with guests having the opportunity to join in a timed parking competition, with and without the help of front parking sensors and rear view camera.
Attempts at the course ranged from the wheelspin smoke-fuelled destruction of the marker cones, to the sedate driving Miss Daisy approach.
Every driver agreed with the running commentary that everyone’s performance was better and fewer objects hit with the van fitted with the systems. With 80% of accidents happening on site – and therefore usually involving slow moving, reversing manoeuvres, it was hard to come away without agreeing that parking sensors make business sense.
Traction Control – The Skidpan
Who watches Top Gear and programmes of their kind and doesn’t wish that they were driving one of the cars in a massive power slide. The Van Experience let everyone reveal their inner Clarkson with a spin around the skidpan in a Mercedes van or a choice of vans from the competition.
It was clear that, whilst all vans present bar the Vauxhall Vivaro had traction control, not all traction control systems are equal. The benefits of the system were so great that the Mercedes vans were a little boring and predictable – no bad thing on the road, but the queue to try the Peugeot Boxer and Vauxhall Vivaro showed which were the most fun!
Another potentially dry subject is fuel efficiency – brought to life by Mercedes by starting a competition. The guests fell firmly into two camps, the competitive ones and those who wanted to mess about – the latter mainly the Euro Commercials representatives led by the dealer’s MD, Chris Anthony.
The competition involved two laps of the circuit in a Sprinter, Vito or Citan with the best performance of the day taking home a prize of a Mercedes-Benz nodding dog. What the exercise showed, repeating the results at a presentation is that a Citan is capable of 91.9mpg (Jason Hodge – Editor CV Dealer Magazine), the Vito of 78.8 (Mark Wadsworth – Door & Gate Services) and the Sprinter of 71.4MPG (Richard Crook, Logistics Director DHL).
As well as showing how well a van can perform, the guests hoping to take the wooden spoon home with the van on the rev limiter whilst waiting in the queue to start ‘only’ managed 12.1mpg in the Sprinter, 23.9MPG in the Vito and 32.8mpg in the Citan.
What on paper looks set to be the most interesting lacked the competitive element that gave the other demonstrations their appeal. Still, it isn’t every day that you get to be transported in a 6×6 Sprinter or drive a loaded 4×4 through a river and traverse a 27-degree slope.
Is the event worthwhile?
Mercedes were able to display their existing products and hints of their forthcoming vehicles, (the new, premium people mover, the V-Class was on display) in a controlled environment. As you would expect, it was professionally put together and no expense was spared – even the ice cream van dispensing free ice creams was a Sprinter conversion. There were no fewer than 40 approved conversions on static display – Mercedes do not yet have their own, branded, ready bodies scheme in place – with representatives of the body builders on hand to answer any questions.
As far as the guests were concerned, the event was well received with no one going home empty handed.
Should other manufacturers follow suit with a ride and drive event? There are not many who would be prepared to stretch the budget this far, but certainly Ford, with their newly revamped range, should consider something along these lines. We may even get an invite.