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A moose of a mistake, Mercedes style

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in Centerpiece,Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

It was 1997, and Daimler Benz AG executives were toasting the successful introduction of a new class of car geared toward younger drivers, especially women and young families.

Then they received an urgent phone call. A Swedish journalist had done a driving test of the new A-Class car, and it had rolled over, injuring one of the passengers.

The test, called the “Moose Test,” involved a driver swerving into another lane then back again, as if avoiding hitting a moose (a common cause of accidents in Sweden, Finland and Canada).

The press coverage was swift and widespread.

The response to the crisis from the Daimler Benz executives? A public relations spokesman immediately said, “No comment.” We don’t speak out every time there’s a car accident.

Two days later, the company released an official statement saying the accident was due to extreme driving conditions that had pushed the laws of physics.

Public reaction was predictably neg­ative. Some took the comment about “pushing the laws of physics” as a challenge, and tried to re-create the acci­dent. German media published jokes and cartoons mocking the Moose Test and Mercedes. Daimler’s stock fell.

Mercedes’ mistake? When it should have been connecting with customers using empathy and transparency, it came across as arrogant by focusing on technical details.

The very core of its brand reputation—quality, safety and technology—had been sullied.

Three weeks later, Mercedes made another announcement.

First, it expressed concern for customers. Its engineers had been working day and night toward a solution to the car’s weakness, it said. It issued a recall of A-Class vehicles to retrofit them with a safety system.

A new ad campaign described the Moose Test positively and directly. The company sent letters to customers, and invited journalists to drive the car at a testing facility.

It worked. The car soon became the best-selling Mercedes model in Germany.

— Adapted from Reputation Rules, Daniel Diermeier.

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