Porsche, Mercedes sell the experience now, car later

At the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, visitors can arrange on-road or off-road driving sessions in their favorite Porsche model.

ATLANTA — With sharp angles and curved glass walls, Porsche’s U.S. headquarters is a striking $100 million piece of design. The investment is already paying off in publicity.

Since opening in 2015, the 27-acre campus has served as a backdrop in 15 movies and TV shows, including cameo roles in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.

Porsche’s more than 200,000-square-foot office building, which overlooks a runway at the world’s busiest airport, served as the Avengers’ new headquarters in Captain America: Civil War. It also appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming when the web-spinning superhero visited his Avenger pals.

One Porsche Drive, however, is more than Hollywood prop. It’s the operational hub of the North American business, Porsche’s second largest market after China. The automaker sold more than 55,400 sports cars and SUVs in the U.S. last year.

The headquarters is also pivotal to a soft-sell strategy that Porsche, like some other automakers, relies on to offset the hard-sell tactics associated with dealerships.

Porsche centers

The site is one of two Porsche Experience Centers in the U.S. that together have drawn more than 250,000 visitors in the last three years.

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Part test-drive track on steroids, part cultural immersion, the Experience Centers in Atlanta and Los Angeles 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.

“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 car display, customization studio and restaurant, are a way for nonowners, too, 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 claimed.

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.

Mercedes pop-ups

Building the customer pipeline also drives Mercedes-Benz’s experiential retail strategy. The luxury automaker is rolling out pop-up stores in tony shopping malls that are geared more toward brand-building and customer education than moving metal.

“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.

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