Mercedes-Benz CEO Ola Källenius announced a longterm partnership with Lightstorm Entertainment, creators of the mega-hit Avatar and its four future sequels, and presented the first manifestation of their collaboration—the VISION AVTR concept car—during a keynote at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The presentation offered a window 20 years into the future at what a car might look like, and how we’ll interact with it. If you’re wondering why they partnered or what it means for the brand, you’re not alone. You won’t see this concept car driving around Pandora or as a Happy Meal toy when the Avatar sequel comes out in two years.
What we’ve learned covering Mercedes-Benz for many years is that they think differently than many other auto manufacturers. A day spent on a deep dive into this atypical partnership, and the debut of the VISION AVTR concept car, helped us understand that it’s an expression of their commitment to creating a luxury mobility brand; one that continues to evolve and remain relevant in customers’ lives and has an increasingly EQ-powered electric future.
We spoke with Bettina Fetzer (Vice President Marketing Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars at Daimler AG) and Kathy Franklin (President, Franchise Development at James Cameron and Jon Landau’s Lightstorm Entertainment, where she oversees global brand strategy and management for the Avatar franchise) to better understand the partnership. Most relationships between entertainment and product companies involve the obvious; such as product placement and co-marketing deals, which are often shorter-term and tied to the show or film’s debut.
This partnership is more strategic: a meeting of immensely imaginative storytellers along with some of the world’s most talented automotive designers, engineers and marketers. If the debut of the VISION AVTR concept is just the beginning of their collaboration, we could all be looking at a new type of partnership between entertainment and product makers—one that’s more emotional, intellectual and with a potentially profound impact on future products and experiences.
Fetzer explains that the teams met several years ago and always felt a simpatico connection and a deep curiosity toward each other’s work. With the Avatar sequel more than four years away at that point having any tactical marketing conversation was premature. Ongoing discussions between the two entities, culminating in a deep conversation between Källenius and Cameron started them down the path of a less obvious partnership, with the first public result a concept car that was designed holistically—with ideas about materials, technology, interior and exterior converging instead of going through a more traditional linear approach that starts with the car’s exterior. It was also a collaborative process with significant contributions from the Avatar team.
That input isn’t about fluffy cosmetic touches; rather they consider things like navigation, visual display, environmental design and lifestyle choices that keep shifting consumer desires and the health of the planet in mind—all of which are important to Cameron and Mercedes-Benz. Fetzer says, “It wasn’t an obvious match because it would always be easy to just put a car into a movie, but we thought it would be a shame to let it go waste and we said let’s just be a bit broader about what we’re doing and bring the teams together and put the fantasy world that we see in Avatar on the road to something more tangible.”
Franklin adds, “The initial introduction was made in the context that Mercedes-Benz was getting into the electric vehicle space and that they were looking at all of the many ways they could amplify that and would we like to have a conversation with them. And we said, ‘Absolutely, that’s the kind of thing that the Avatar sequels want to be in support of.’ So we started the conversation and it was amazing because that question came up immediately: ‘Is there an opportunity to put a vehicle in the sequels?’ And we said, ‘Let’s take a step back, what if it wasn’t about putting a vehicle in the sequels? What if it was about values alignment. What if it was about communicating ideas? What would that look like? What if we thought about this in a way that was not a traditional co-promotion, but try to really look at it from a different perspective?’ And it was in that context that we started this conversation not about a vehicle that would go in the films, but a concept vehicle that could really explain these ideas and try to illustrate where the value overlap is between Mercedes-Benz and what they’re trying to achieve and what the Avatar sequels are trying to achieve.”
The result is a concept car with lighting inspired by bioluminescence, orb-shaped wheels that allow the car to move sideways as well as forward and backward, a fresh look at displaying visuals and information, car controls that are projected onto the palm of one’s hand and scale-like flaps on the rear of the car that indicate to those outside what the car is doing or about to do. It features environmentally friendly materials like vegan DINAMICA leather and karuun, a wood-like material created from fast-growing rattan—which are low impact liana, not trees. The car is powered by a compostable graphene-based battery free of rare earth elements and metals—changing the way we think about batteries and their impact on manufacturing and waste.
The VISION AVTR surprises in another way as well. Many predictions for the future of auto design depict car interiors as living rooms. Despite their relaxed stance, there’s no mistaking the two front and two rear seats in this car as such. We asked Alexander Mankowsky (Daimler’s futurist) why this was the case.
“Very few people think of safety when designing concept cars,” he says. If you are in a living room with books and lamps and pillows, he says, “It’s really not possible because there can be accidents in a car, there can be emergency braking. The living room concept has to be further developed.” The concepts in the VISION AVTR create a feeling that’s more realistic, he says, yet still deliver a compelling vision of the future.
Fetzer says, “I think we have always been a brand that has generated great respect. We’re very trustworthy, we’re highly engineered, but I think we have some space to go to become a bit more of an emotionally engaged brand and to become more of a loved brand, as we want to go down that road. Picking up a theme that’s not necessarily car and engineering driven but emotionally driven is something that we feel fits perfectly well for how we want to proceed with the brand.”
It’s a brave move, though she may just be right.