Mercedes, Porsche ramp up soft-sell brand builders

The Experience Centers have piqued the interest of the next generation of Porsche owners.

ATLANTA — People don’t like being sold to. The auto industry is catching on.

Automakers are experimenting with soft-sell approaches to offset the hard-sell tactics associated with dealerships.

Mercedes-Benz is rolling out pop-up stores in tony shopping malls that are geared more toward brand building and customer education than moving metal.

Porsche, meanwhile, showcases its sports and racing lineage via a pair of “Experience Centers” in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Part test-drive on steroids, part cultural immersion, the venues drew more than 250,000 visitors in the last three years.

The centers do not sell sports cars. Instead, they sell the Porsche brand via an experience.

Visitors can book on-road or off-road driving sessions in their favorite Porsche model coached by professional drivers. It’s not cheap, though. Ninety minutes of whiplashing around the 1.6 mile Atlanta track in a 911 Turbo will set you back $850. Off-roading in a Cayenne, meanwhile, costs $350 for an hour and a half.

Getting people behind the wheel in a place where they can test the performance is the best way to connect them with the Porsche brand, Porsche Cars North America CEO Klaus Zellmer noted.

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“Our visitors go home with a smile and a new relationship with Porsche,” Zellmer told Automotive News in an email. “We are successfully connecting with new audiences.”

The Experience Centers help with customer retention and acquisition, said Todd Blue, CEO of IndiGO Auto Group, which has three Porsche stores in St. Louis, Houston and Rancho Mirage, Calif.

“What they’ve done with the Experience Centers absolutely, unequivocally enhances the ownership experience of a Porsche and the fact that it’s not just transportation,” Blue said.

The venues, which also feature a racing simulator lab, classic sports cars display, customization studio and restaurant, are a way for nonowners to get a taste of the Porsche life.

About 60 percent of visitors to the Experience Centers don’t own a Porsche. But after a spin around the tracks, 30 percent say they are “very likely” to buy one, Porsche said.

The experience-rich centers have piqued the interest of the next generation of Porsche owners.

A quarter of visitors to the Experience Centers are younger than 35, with the average visitor being seven years younger than the average Porsche customer, the automaker said.

Building the customer pipeline also drives Mercedes’ experiential retail strategy, which launched with a pop-up store late last year in Atlanta, followed by Miami and Chicago.

“We are seeing an appreciable number of people who had not previously considered the brand, but who bought a Mercedes following a visit to the brand stores,” a company spokeswoman said.

The stores feature a couple of vehicles, Mercedes-branded accessories and 3D virtual reality rides.

The pop-ups are a modern twist on a traditional auto show, where consumers are exposed to the product and can experience the technology, without having to make a purchase, said Jeff Aiosa, owner of Mercedes-Benz of New London in Connecticut.

“It’s just about gathering information in a more contemporary space,” Aiosa told Automotive News this year.

The Porsche Experience Centers have even become destinations, drawing corporate retreats, fundraiser events, even Hollywood.

Scenes in Spider-man: Homecoming and Captain America: Civil War were filmed at the Atlanta Experience Center, which is part of Porsche’s architecturally striking $100 million headquarters building overlooking a runway at the world’s busiest airport.

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