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Mercedes, Porsche bring themselves down to earth

Mike Cassese / Reuters

A 2013 Porsche 911 Carrera on display at the Detroit auto show.

By Dan Carney, msnbc.com contributor

Carmakers almost uniformly seek to boost their images, hoping to promote their products as something drivers should aspire to. In the process, they seek wealthy, well-educated (and young) buyers. The sort of person who spends plenty of money on new cars.

Trouble is there’s a name frequently applied to such people: Snobs. If people think a car is owned mainly by snobs, or that the dealers who represent the brand are snooty, potential customers might not even consider buying that company’s cars.

It’s something that worries Mercedes-Benz President and CEO Dieter Zetsche. At the Detroit auto show this week he expressed a desire to ensure that consumers see Mercedes as “approachable” so that when they are in a position to buy a new Mercedes they are willing to visit one of the company’s dealers. This is particularly critical as the carmaker prepares to enter the compact car market. It's doing so  to pump up its average fuel economy and meet government gas mileage standards.

Getting buyers for those cars into Mercedes dealers will be the company’s challenge, Zetsche said.

“We have to improve our perceived accessibility of the brand,” he observed. “It was perceived as being arrogant and not interested in our customers.”

Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images

Upscale sedans, electric vehicles and old-school muscle cars make their debuts at the 2012 North American International Auto show.

It’s no surprise shoppers would steer clear of a company they thought was looking down on them. The German carmaker is working to improve its marketing to convey an image of simultaneous prestige and friendliness.  

“In marketing I think we are among the front-runners,” Zetsche said.

Facing a similar challenge, Porsche will soon open two Porsche Experience centers, one in Los Angeles and one near its Atlanta U.S. headquarters, according to spokesman Nick Twork. These centers will be located in highly visible spots where passersby will be invited to come in and see the cars while not facing the sales pressure of a car dealer.

They will even be able to try out the sports cars on a test track, helping acquaint them with the characteristics that distinguish Porsche sports cars from merely sporty cars.

But the first step is getting non-Porsche owners to slide behind the wheel of one for the first time, and these centers should help the company overcome the exclusive “clubbiness” that may keep some potential buyers at bay.

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