By on June 21, 2014


From the department of brand-killing marketing ideas comes Mercedes-Benz’s latest venture: in-game product placement for popular Nintendo game Mario Kart. Why? Because Millennials, that’s why!

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Mario Kart is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. There’s been at least one game on every Nintendo system since the days of the square-controller Super Nintendo. It’s easily one of the company’s most valuable franchises, right up there alongside perennial moneymakers like the Zelda and Super Mario Brothers series.

Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U, Nintendo’s current-generation home console, sold over a million copies in four days after its late May release. True to the Mario Kart tradition, MK8 is a zany, fast-paced arcade style racing game with broad appeal. Unlike Forza, Gran Turismo, or other serious simulator-type racing games, MK8 is all about casual play online and amongst friends. Comic explosions and crazy items abound, including banana peels, turtle shells, mushrooms that make you go faster, and squids that cover the screen in digital ink. Into this atmosphere steps Mercedes, which in partnership with Nintendo has announced it will sponsor a “GLA-class” kart as a piece of downloadable content (DLC) for the game sometime later this summer. That means it will most likely be a free, voluntary addition to the game, but the announcement already has many Mario Kart players steamed.

The GLA, and its CLA sedan cousin, are aimed squarely at the entry-level buyer demographic that luxury brands are currently chasing with wild abandon. Mercedes, Audi, BMW, and other luxury brands all want younger blood in their dealerships, as they try to set up a new class of lifelong repeat customers. Millennials make up a huge chunk of the player demographic for the Mario Kart series, so from a pure exposure standpoint the Mercedes sponsorship seems to make sense. Even so, the context of the game wildly clashes with Mercedes’ brand image in North America. That’s partly because this particular venture is something of a digital leftover.

It’s important to note that the GLA kart wasn’t originally intended for the North American market. Instead, it’s the fruit of a Mercedes tie-in with Nintendo in Japan. That includes a classically bizarre Japanese TV commercial (viewable in the link), where a chiseled Mario steps out of a GLA in front of a windswept castle before accidentally stepping on a Goomba. For the Japanese market, though, this is positively vanilla. Freaky ads for luxury goods and virtually everything else are pretty much the norm in the Land of the Rising Sun (if you don’t believe me, waste an afternoon on this Youtube channel). So are tie-ins between seemingly unrelated categories of products, like a German luxury automaker and a homegrown electronic entertainment conglomerate. For the American market, though, this JDM import seriously risks getting lost in translation.

At the heart of the problem is Mario Kart’s overall aesthetic. As explained earlier, it’s the kind of game where crazy power-ups coexist alongside cartoon animals and giant flowers used as parachutes. There’s absolutely nothing realistic about it, and none of the karts resemble actual vehicles in the slightest. It’s a game that exists entirely inside the made-up Nintendo universe; that’s part and parcel of the appeal. Where does a chunky, semi-realistic rendering of a Mercedes-Benz trucklet fit into this?

The short answer is that it doesn’t. Gamers are already complaining that in-game product placement of this type is completely out of line with the spirit of the series. Pessimists will counter that many of these complainers are likely to be twelve-year-olds and basement dwellers whose opinions don’t matter, and they might be right. But this product tie-in encapsulates everything that Millennials hate about marketing targeted at them: a heavy-handed attempt to make something look “cool” and “hip” by sticking it where it doesn’t belong. To those potential customers, Mercedes will now be known as the company that ruined Mario Kart by sticking a fugly CUV inside of it. For everyone else, they’ll just be a laughingstock.

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58 Comments on “Adventures in Downmarketing: Mercedes-Benz Goes Nintendo...”

  • avatar

    And yet, the Chevy Sonic Sega Edition still does not exist.

  • avatar

    The Super Nintendo controller was never square shaped. It looked more like two circles connected by a rectangle.

  • avatar

    Coming soon to Mario Kart, Cadillac ATS and the Lincoln Escape (China only).

  • avatar

    Clearly, they are targeting the newly-rich pot entrepreneurs of Colorado with this.

    • 0 avatar

      Nah, most of them are still dyed in the wool subie types. Most of your typical “Mercedes” money didn’t get near the initial rush, and it’s too late to get in good now.

      I do know some legit Boulderites with dreadlocks and a fantastic new Yoga studio now, though :)

  • avatar

    If this were a 300SL I’d be pleased to see it in Mario Kart, but a GLA?

    I still think this millennial targeting things a joke, not only does Mercedes have the ugliest “design language” out of the other current cars, but I’ve yet to see another millennial who can afford a Benz let alone even wanted one.

    • 0 avatar

      While I could afford one and enjoy driving them, I’d never own one due to the brand stigma. Even in SoCal your friends will pick on you for owning/driving one unless you’re at least gen X or older.

      This will definitely not redeem them to my generation. The CLA is their only hope and they will need to pull off Honda-level reliability to be successful with that move. I don’t think they’ll be that lucky.

  • avatar

    …but millennials are just kids! Their pocket money won’t be enough to cover the cost of a new car.

    How about marketing new cars to age groups that can actually afford to buy cars?

    • 0 avatar

      They assume that whoever buys one of their cars will become brand loyal, so they shoot for young people that’ll keep buying Mercedes for 40-50 years.

      • 0 avatar

        I have to question that assumption for Gen X and younger. They are really hammering this square GLA into the round hole of the Mario cart universe. I have to question the demographic overlap of people who are playing Mario Cart and are in the market for a bottom tier psudo-luxury car.

        Now if you had the Kia Soul Spokes-Hampsters in the game with congruent avatar art design I could see it working. Make it a unique and powerful in game character that can be unlocked by visiting a tie in site.

        • 0 avatar

          I’m 35, I play Mario Kart, and could easily afford a CLA. I could also stretch to afford something higher up the Mercedes brand-ladder, if I thought it mattered to look like I waste my money on luxury brands.

          I’m totally in the entry-level luxury demographic, having recently earned a MBA and an above average salary – but I’m really not interested being Sloan Planned out of my hard earned cash, or buying in to someone else’s brand treadmill. Instead, I picked up a 10 year old Toyota mimivan with relatively modern safety features, and I’m just settling in to the routine of long term ownership with it, after 18 months of ownership – and I wouldn’t trade this van for a free german cart of any kind.

          I’m my own man, and I don’t want to be someone else’s brand follower. If Mercedes wants my money, marketing exposure ain’t gonna do it. What Mercedes needs to do is offer me something of value that I can’t get elsewhere. Lots of cars have shiny round logos on the front, and the Mercedes one looks like it’s from the same alphabet as shiny double ellipse on my current car, so that’s not sufficient to justify the price premium. Same goes for leather seats, sunroof, and sport-tuned suspension – I can get those anywhere for a more reasonable price, too.

    • 0 avatar

      Millennials are between 14 and 34. They’re the prime market to target with this though arguably it would be their echo boomer siblings and children that will have the most impact.

  • avatar

    Can someone define the age range of Millenials? It seems like I am part of a forgotten group that is too young for Gen X, but too old (thankfully) to be considered a part of the Millenial set.

    • 0 avatar

      >> Can someone define the age range of Millenials?

      According to what I could gather from a quick read of Wikipedia, birth years from 1982 to 2004.

      • 0 avatar

        Guess that makes me a millenial (born 1992).

        Well I try to buck the stereotype.

      • 0 avatar

        Ugh. Apparently, I am just barely a Millenial, but I share little in common with college-aged and younger kids and identify more closely with the Gen X stereotype. I could afford these cheap Benzes, but have no interest, and am too old to enjoy Mario Kart.

        • 0 avatar

          JD23: We’re the transition phase for our generation. Some called us the “MTV generation”. We have a lot in common with both generations, actually. I can relate to both well – Gen X because I remember the Cold War and know most of their music, and what I consider my generation because technology was becoming ubiquitous as I was becoming old enough to use it. Apparently some businesses seek us out to bridge the gap between their out-of-touch isolationist slacker Gen X management and the ultra-social highly-cooperative Millennial workers.

          • 0 avatar

            This generation stuff is mostly BS.

            The big cultural shift is kids who’ve grown up with the Internet. That didn’t start happening at the same time everywhere.

            Assuming you have access to the world’s information all of the time changes a lot of a person’s assumptions about the world. It changes everything about how you communicate,and about how reputations are formed and maintained.

            As far marketing luxury cars goes, exclusivity isn’t what it was, now that I can just use Google and owners forums to see anything that money can buy

          • 0 avatar

            I think the main difference between the people born around the 1982-1984 period and the Millenial stereotype is that they (we) remember the world before the internet. Although I see the value in social media when used in moderation, I don’t feel the need to jump on the bandwagon of every new social app or constantly post life’s details on the internet for all to see.

            I currently drive an Audi, so I should hypothetically be near the target audience for this cynical piece of marketing. However, I paid cash for my car when I was in my late 20s and don’t have any desire to lease a FWD econo-car with a MB badge, regardless of whether it’s in the type of videogame I haven’t played for 15 years.

  • avatar

    As a (thankfully) former employee of a Fortune 500 company, I can totally imagine how this happened.

    1 You have a Director of Partnerships.

    2 Director of Partnerships says “we should collaborate with [Insert Large Consumer Technology Company]”

    3 Many meetings occur, with much discussion of “potential synergies”

    4 Partnership is arranged. Director receives bonus/is fired depending on the whim of the executives.

    5 Then you have to figure out what to actually DO with the partnership. We were supposed to take their stuff and hack and innovate and go all Silicon Valley. Also incorporate the Cloud and Motion Control and other contemporary coolness.

    Sometimes dumb things like this result. It really is a terrible idea but I guess any publicity is good publicity.

    • 0 avatar

      You know, after reading this thread my money is on your interpretation.

      I suspect a lot of people are over-analyzing this, trying to find the rational reason behind a dumb idea.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Not that big of a deal. If the product is good then the brand will remain fine. If the product is good then the consumers will move up the ladder to the nicer cars.

  • avatar

    I’ve played Mario Kart Wii a lot. Unlocked all the characters, suits, and everything. Had almost 7000 VS points before the Wi-Fi got shut down. This is seriously a shame on both Mercedes and Nintendo’s part.

    I used to play Club Penguin, and after I quit playing, they began doing all of these takeovers based on Marvel movies (since Club Penguin is owned by Disney) and a smoothie party for some British company. It killed the game for a lot of long-time players, since it was basically an excuse for Disney to advertise their other products.

  • avatar

    Product placement isn’t bad, but…

    For grins, I priced a CLA. To finance it for 42 months at 4% Interest (Most millenials would go for the longest term, and would have bad interest rates), the monthly payment would be over $700/month.

    How many millenials will pay that, or even could?

    • 0 avatar
      Chris FOM

      None of them. They’re getting a $299/month lease special. The German brands already have high lease rates, but I suspect it’s particularly high with the entry models like the A3/CLA/320i.

      • 0 avatar

        Mercedes’ advertised lease deal for the base CLA is $329 a month, with $3300 down and $600 at turn in. Figure on at least another $1000 in state taxes and fees.

        So the real world bottom line is around $475 a month.

        The only millenials who will be driving these will be trophy second or third wives.

        • 0 avatar

          I don’t know about that: Almost every CLA I’ve seen (and there’re plenty in the DC metro area) is being driven by a late 20s/early 30s man.

          Merits of the CLA aside, a $475 lease seems about the sweet spot for an aspirational young professional in a high-income area.

          • 0 avatar

            There are plenty of “kids” making six-figure salaries in DC, LA, Boston, and Silicon Valley. The ones lucky enough to not have six-figure student loan debt often drive this sort of thing. But most of them will be bought by middle-age dudes and duddettes like me, so I too don’t get why companies are so obsessed with the starving youth market.

          • 0 avatar

            These were millennials that got lucky. They got into something that translated to a high-paying, high-job-security government job and somehow got in there without student loan debt (as krhodes1 points out). Few that aren’t in that type of situation (that is, the vast, vast majority) could swing that kind of lease payment and still eat or have a place to sleep.

            Shared rent with roommates is out of reach for most, so something like this is completely out of the question.

    • 0 avatar

      Silly me. I thought people still bought cars.

      For a $429/month lease, they might be onto something.

      Or, you could just buy a (gasp) used one in three or four years.

      • 0 avatar

        But a used German car?

        Been there, done that, lost the T-shirt I was wearing at the time….

        • 0 avatar

          That’s essentially what I was thinking.

          Buy a used American car? Sure, cheap to maintain.
          Buy a used Japanese car? Sure, probably still reliable.
          Buy a used German car? Sure, if you’re a mechanic and/or have about 3-4k a year to spend on maintenance.

          I certainly wouldn’t take a loan out on one that extends past the factory warranty. People leasing them aren’t taking this risk.

          • 0 avatar

            Did I get the only working Audi?

            I’ve owned my 2001 A6 Avant for about a year- the only maintenance it needed other than oil was a timing belt replacement- and that was precautionary.

            I have a friend who owns a different 2001 Avant- she’s pushed it to over 400k miles. She has a newer A7, but she still drives the Avant.

            Granted, my 1995 Buick is still cheaper to own…

      • 0 avatar

        I’d be afraid to see the condition of these leased CLAs in three years. I have a feeling they will be treated as little more than disposable fashion accessories.

  • avatar

    Now all they need to do is to make a commercial with a rapping dog or a waifu princess.


  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    I’m certain, had M-B asked Takara/Tomy, the latter would have been perfectly happy to add a GLA to a current or future Choro-Q software release.

    And seeing as Choro-Q has sold more copies across more game systems than the entire Mario Kart franchise, the brand recognition and market acceptance are already in place. One of Choro-Q’s main points of appeal is to see how well the current crop of popular vehicles have been rendered in classic super-deformed mode.

  • avatar

    In the film SUPERSIZE ME:

    this is referred to as “brand imprinting for later actualization”

    get these kids thinking about Mercedes while they are young and perhaps they’ll choose the TriStar over the BMW later on…

  • avatar

    If Married with Children was still on, I’m sure Mercedes would convince the producers to get Al to stop driving his Dodge and roll up in a CLA that smoked and clunked.

    While I’m considered a millennial because of my age, I want nothing to do with most people in my generation.

  • avatar

    This isn’t aimed at Millenials, they won’t touch a Wii U with a 10-foot pole. This is aimed at people over 30, women most likely since this is the kind of demographic who would buy a Wii U just to play Mario Kart.

  • avatar
    The Heisenberg Cartel

    Big truck series is actually right on with this one. As somebody who grew up on Mario Kart, getting to be Mario driving a Mercedes Benz would be awesome, because weirdness.

  • avatar

    A million copies… So every single person whose mom bought them a Wii U received a copy of this game for their birthday? Impressive!

    Somebody tell all these brands that the ground they gain at the bottom-end of the market comes at the risk of the top-end buyers moving on, with spite in their hearts and a sneer on their faces… Didn’t we just see that Maserati has already matched last year’s total sales numbers? Probably not a coincidence.

  • avatar
    John R

    MERCEDES: “This is how you do this video-game-marketing thing, right?”
    NISSAN: “No. You’re doing this wrong.”

  • avatar

    A better tie-in would be to have a GLA parked outside of Princess Peach’s castle. The GLA is pretty clearly aimed at “Daddy’s Little Princesses” everywhere.

    But seriously, everyone who wants a Testarossa because you played Outrun as a kid, raise your hand.

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