Dr Wilfried Aulbur is the managing director and CEO of Mercedes-Benz India Pvt Ltd since 1 January, 2006. Prior to this appointment, Dr Aulbur was the executive assistant of the head of Mercedes Car Group (2003 to 2005). Dr Aulbur did his undergraduate and graduate studies in Europe and the US. He earned his PhD in Physics from Ohio State University in 1996 and subsequently worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California and the Ohio State University in the areas of semiconductors, computational material science and solid state physics.
In an extensive conversation with SportzPower's Javed Farooqui during the Mumbai Invitational Round for the Mercedes Trophy 2010, Dr Aulbur offered an overview of the relationship of the Mercedes-Benz brand with sport in India.
How does Mercedes Benz connect with golf in India, particularly since the sport has such low spectator involvement in this market?
For us, I would say without spectators it’s actually a better opportunity to interact with our customers. It’s a direct connect with our customer which gives us the opportunity and prospects to interact with then, to spend time, to talk with them.
Tell us a bit more about the Mercedes Trophy 2010.
This is now a four tier event: Tier number one is what is happening right now - the invitational where we have prospects also and club level tournaments. The winner here will go to the regional. We have four city tournaments and the winner and runner up will go to the final in Pune. There. we will have a party in my house, we'll have some factory tours and test drives and all that. It’s more about the experience of getting closer to our customers and also in turn giving our customers access to the brand, to the people that are important to us and it makes a huge difference for us.
This is our 10th tournament and my fifth. The nice part of this is that you see the same kind of people again and again and it is a good opportunity to even develop friendships. The number of avid golfers that come time and again, avid Mercedes Benz owners as well. There is a nice relationship which develops.
So golf is a good networking platform for CEOs.
I think it is a fantastic networking platform for CEOs but even beyond the social aspects, I think in India with new players such as Gaganjeet Singh Bhullar, I believe that the sport has a good future. Because there are young kids inspired by his success, inspired by his passion, his drive. They want to aim as high he is aiming. And I am very much convinced that dynamism and that drive, that passion, will also lead to a situation where golf in India will become even more visible.
I think cricket is a fantastic sport but with more than I billion people, if you put the right infrastructure in place and the right training, you should be competing at the top of most sports. Whether it is golf, basketball or soccer, the potential is there, the talent is there. And luckily for golf, I do believe that we are getting to a situation were this talent will be more and more systematically harnessed.
Gaganjeet was somebody who basically taught himself; he did not have any long term trainer. But I believe that with his success, with things developing in the country we should a nice golfing scene develop.
Could you elaborate on your relationship with Gagan, what form has it taken? Is it purely as a brand face for the tournament or is there something deeper than that?
Basically we have looked at finding somebody who can help us communicates the close association between Mercedes Benz and Golf. If you look at Gagan, he is a typical customer of ours, in the sense that many of the young Indians today are early performers, definitely people that are motivated, people that strive for making a difference in their lives and that’s were we thought he is the typical example for young, aspiring and striving India and as a consequence of that we tied up with him.
Extending that logic is there any thought around maybe a youth programme for golf?
Not at this point. Our thought was basically to extend our reach in golf. Because traditionally two years ago we had three regional tournaments. We went to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and finals in Pune.
But the demand was so high, typically we are oversubscribed for our tournaments so we thought let put us put a fourth regional tournament and we went to Chandigarh. And demand is still very high so we have to see how we develop further.
Then we thought let us get an opportunity not only to interact with Mercedes Benz owners but to also support golf as a whole by branching out with these ten invitational club level tournaments, where have both owners, prospects and club members playing. So that has given us significantly increased reach. How we take it forward we'll have to see. It has been quite a journey for us and a good celebration of ten years of success.
How has been the response for the Mercedes Trophy?
If you look at it, it's one of the most sought after tournaments in the golfing calendar. If you look at the level of the event organisation, the prizes, the give-aways, the fact that we have a very good partner in HSBC who is also our presenting sponsor. I think it gives us an opportunity to give people an experience that is of a certain level. And the excitement among the golfers is very high, at least I have heard very positive feedback. The invitationals will give us 1000 to 1200 people in terms of interaction. And the excitement that we have built up already for the regionals is definitely leading us to a situation where we will be oversubscribes and we will have to limit ourselves to 700 players in the early 2010 regionals.
What does then winner of the regional do, do they go to the Asian level?
They go directly go to Germany. In regionals we have three handicap categories. The winner and runners up go to Pune for the finals from there they go to Germany and they will participate in our global tournament, where at the end of the day 73 countries are competing with 60,000 Mercedes owning amateur golfers are playing.
The focus is not on pros or prize money. The focus is really about the Mercedes owner who can play, and they have an affinity for sports and an affinity in particular for golf.
Globally Mercedes Benz is associated with many sports like football, golf in particular, tennis and motorsport, but in India it is limited to golf. What are the reasons for that?
In India Golf for us is a very good platform. We are also doing some sponsoring in horse racing and polo, which is one of our global focus areas as well. Tennis, we used to do. We used to support the ATP tour in India and the WTA in India. But globally we've moved away from tennis a little bit and moving more into horse racing, golf, polo and clearly for us F1 is an area of great interest. And we're happy that F1 is coming to India.
We already have Mercedes Benz engines racing in Force India. In my opinion that was a big part of the reason why Force India got a pole position. Which, I think in the second year for a racing team is a fantastic achievement. If you look at Honda, Toyota, even BMW, after so many years with such big development teams behind them they haven't had that kind of success. I think it's a big success what the team (Force India) has achieved.
Which are the horse racing events that Mercedes sponsors?
We have a polo event in Delhi. We have sponsored some horse racing events in Mumbai. These are more on a one off basis, meaning we sponsor two, three, four events during the calendar year, but it's not as focused as golf.
So coming back to golf, for us, as we said, we have developed it into a nice platform. If you look at the regionals and finals, there, it’s a combination. It's not only the guys or the girls who get to play. We invite the whole family in the evenings. We typically have a nice dinner, a fashion show, there is some entertainment. So it becomes a whole lifestyle event for our customers.
I strongly believe there are two things that define your brand; one is your employees and the second is your customers. The brand appeal is only due to the fact that you get the endorsement from your customers. And we are lucky to have a large set of highly interesting people, people that are successful, people that have made a difference, but still are driven and still are pushing barriers.
Before associating with any sports what are the things you look out for? Do you have any parameters set?
For us as a company we try to associate with the kind of sports that find resonance with our customers and target audience. Here in India it’s clearly golf. But in Germany there is national association with soccer. In Germany soccer is a big national pass time even for our clientele.
But typically, it's more about, does it fit from a lifestyle perspective, does it fit from a customer perspective. Is this something that our customers want to engage in? That's what we are looking at.
As an outsider how do you see sport evolving in India in the next two three years, apart from cricket?
Two, three years is difficult to say. It all depends. In my opinion somebody has to put in funding or make it available. I think that funding and support will have to come not only come from corporates but also from government. There needs to be a conscious efforts to develop capabilities. In boxing, for instance we had some results in Beijing, got couple of medals. Shooting is quite good.
But the fact of the matter is, as an overall country, the frustration is always about the number of medals you get at the end. And I don’t see that changing unless there are some focused programmes also from government supporting this.
Which are system driven...
It has to be system driven. Today, if you want to really develop competiveness in many sports, you have to start quite early. I mean gymnasts are done by the time they reach 14, 15. Then they are too old for it. It becomes perverted at some point but at least you have an opportunity to start early. Even if you do Judo or karate, whatever you want to do you have to start early at six, seven, eight to really come up a level that at the end day you can compete on a world level.
I think that was is needed and there I just don’t see that is happening. I think in general corporates may not have the drive to take it so far. It has to come from civic society.
How has sports marketing helped in building a strong brand preposition for Mercedes Benz?
Again, for us it’s a more CRM activity, it more getting to know customers, spending time with then, giving them a experience that their appreciate and what we trying to do is that we do at that level that is adequate. You try to create an experience that is at a level that makes people feel special and end of the day they are special and you appreciate them and that is what we are focusing on. And clearly getting some associations with Golf in the press, in the media, or even via advertisements does help in terms putting the lifestyle angle of the brand in focus.
When you talk about the lifestyle what are the other touch points you look at it? Is there anything outside of this that you would like to expand into?
Once we are comfortable with the kind of scope we have in Golf our next thing will be to move more focused into fashion, into Polo and horse racing. So those are the two, three areas where we would want to expand further.
Do you plan to associate with any other sport apart from golf, polo or racing?
Not at this point. First we want to create a golf platform. Over the past we have set a standard in corporate golfing. We have been one of the top tournaments and we want to maintain this standard, with extension of reach to see that we come to a level which is adequate. With growing number of customers and a growing number people who want to play golf, you have to be able to respond to that. Then the next thing is to associate closer with fashion and with horse racing. Those are the two areas that will start in 2010 and probably go into full swing in 2011.
So what you've laid out here is a two-year plan.
It's a two, three year plan.