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06/01/2020

Taking an invention to Market

In 1888 Bertha Benz became the first person to drive an automobile across country, travelling 106km – just under 66 miles – in 12 hours. In that one journey she created a marketing and PR feat that led to the first sales and eventual creation of the Benz automobile factory.

A singular accomplishment – and proof that an amazing invention is all you need to propel you to fame and riches?

Of course, that’s not the case. The successful route to market for most products requires a lot of preparation, research and knowledge.

Identifying the marketplace and competition

Of course, the story of the automobile does not start with Bertha. Two years earlier, in 1886, Carl Benz, her husband, registered the patent for the Motorwagon. His invention did not immediately take off. Carl was an amazing engineer and is now credited with creating a reliable two-stroke engine, spark ignition systems, gear shift and water radiator, among other things.

However, Carl was not confident as a businessman. His original attempts to market his automobile had not gone well. During one of the first few public displays a driver lost control, sending the vehicle crashing into a wall and terrifying the audience. It was not an auspicious start.

At that point Carl retreated to his workshop in order to perfect and tweak his invention. Were it not for Bertha recognising the need for better marketing and undertaking her journey, that could have been the last the world heard of Carl Benz. Competition to create a horseless carriage was fierce, and other inventors were close behind.

Testing and showcasing a working prototype

Along the course of her journey, Bertha was forced to deal with a number of mechanical issues. The Patent-Motorwagon had never taken a journey of such length before, and so she had to manage various issues, including mechanical failures such as clogged valves and broken wires, which she repaired with a hat pin and garter.

The roads, such as they were, had not been created for this type of vehicle. In addition, Bertha discovered that the Motorwagon was not capable of travelling uphill, and required pushing. This led Carl to later create the first gear system.

The downhill journey presented excitement of a different sort. The brake, operated by a lever at the side of the wagon, had to work hard to slow the vehicle and soon wore out. For her return journey Bertha instructed a shoemaker to cover the brakes in a layer of leather – the invention of the first brake pad.

Bertha had inadvertently discovered another vital part of product production. Until then no one had attempted to take similar inventions further than a short distance – or tested them in real life conditions. Her trip accomplished both testing and proof that the Motorwagon was, with some adjustments, fit for purpose.

Identifying the customer base

In 1888 a woman, alone with just her two sons and travelling in such an unusual manner, caused quite a stir. In fact, many of the villagers they passed thought of the smoking monster she rode as a harbinger of doom.

Bertha was required to stop at pharmacies along her route and buy all of their ligroin stock to refuel the Motorwagon. As her journey continued, she attracted as many that were curious as were afraid, and was soon in the newspapers.

The publicity caused by her stunt was so widespread that the couple began to receive orders for the automobile straight away. All they had needed was to demonstrate the value of their product – and some imaginative, positive PR.

Creating a bridgehead into the marketplace

Despite the press coverage of Bertha’s journey, strategic marketing of the Patent Motorwagon was not easy for the Benz family. Carl Benz was not a natural businessman, preferring to focus on the engineering. However, he already had connections with Frenchman Emile Roger, who sold Benz gas engines in Paris. Roger set up the first sales outlet in France, and by 1893 had sold more than Benz himself. It was this start, and the success of the French market, than allowed Benz to go into series production.

Sales & Marketing Strategy

Roger understood the value of successful sales & marketing. His strategy included entering the Benz automobile in racing events – demonstrating that the vehicles were capable of finishing the race, unlike many of the others, and winning top places. On a number of occasions, however, he raced the vehicles under his own name rather than Benz – even claiming that it was his own design.

The story of Bertha Benz and her journey is part of automotive history. She was a vital component in bringing the Benz product to the market.

However, as this true tale also demonstrates, understanding your limits and when to bring in specialists is also important – to create a bridgehead into the country where your consumers are based, to understand the legalities in protecting your product and sales, and to design a go-to-market strategy that gets you there before the competition.