'Hey baby, do you come with the car?'
Female product narrators at today's auto shows continue to hear that old saw. And they must still deftly turn the entreaty aside without offending. But unlike yesteryear, the attractive young women now must know exactly what does come with the car.
That's because auto shows have evolved from indoor parking lots with signs and carpeting into three-dimensional marketing displays that take on the aspects of live advertising. In other words, auto shows have changed from the placid product exhibits of 20 years ago into interactive displays from which automakers pitch their brand messages.
Along the way, regional auto shows have grown in size and importance. And the cottage industries that support the staging of all auto shows have boomed into big businesses, becoming manufacturers' full-fledged marketing partners.
'In the past, we would develop very cool architecture, then we would say, `What is the (brand) message?' and layer it on,' says Dave Dekker, group vice president of Exhibit Works. 'Now that (brand) message has got to be integrated from the very beginning, and it has a direct impact on what we develop.'
Exhibit Works, one of the largest contractors for the construction of auto show exhibits in the country, counts Audi of America Inc., Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen of America Inc. among its clients. In 1991, the Livonia, Mich., company's sales topped $8 million. By 1998, sales had swelled to more than $100 million.
Manufacturers, Dekker says, spend almost three times more on their auto show exhibits today than they did 10 years ago.
The strong economy has fed the transformation, as has the Internet. Product specialists at today's auto shows have a manufacturer's entire spec book loaded on a laptop or palm-sized computer, and they're interacting with consumers who have researched vehicles online.
'What we have found is that customers come to the shows already with a lot of information from the Internet,' says Scott Keogh, manager of communications at Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. At auto shows, 'they want to put a human element to it; they want to talk to somebody.'
So now more than ever, automakers use auto shows to drive traffic to their dealerships, and they have upped the ante and their efforts to get the job done.
General Motors is the latest automaker to raise the stakes. Sources peg GM's bill at $50 million to $100 million for a two-level, 165,000-square-foot display, called The GM Experience, that will house all of its brands. The display will make its debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.
'The intent is to show the global scope of the company,' says Ron Zarrella, president of GM's North American Operations. 'We're thinking big; we want to show that we're an aggressive competitor.'
In addition to more than 100 vehicles representing the automaker's brands, The GM Experience will house a cafe and an 800-seat theater. The GM Experience comes in the wake of Ford Motor Co.'s 82,000-square-foot exhibit last year. Created to house all of Ford's brands, the exhibit had a walkway as long as a football field and a 350-seat theater.
Of course, not everyone is looking to circle the wagons.
'We want our brands to remain separate,' says Don Schmid, DaimlerChrysler senior manager of shows and events. 'If we happen to be next to each other, great; but it's not something we strive to do. We'd rather concentrate on generating backroom efficiencies, where the cost of displays are spread over various show properties.'
Schmid admits that, in general, auto show display costs are 'double what we used to spend just a few years ago,' explaining that displays have become more elaborate and more entertaining, in order to reach audiences.
One such 'property' at the Detroit show in January will be a new display for Dodge. The display will feature a Dodge Dakota Quad Cab and will give the auto show audience the impression the vehicle is suspended from the show's ceiling.
Other automakers also are revamping their displays. For the Detroit show, Mercedes-Benz will drop its slick, but sterile, product display.
'This time around, everything will be operating off of the same theme of `Enduring Emotions,' ' Keogh says. 'The display will feature the history, and the heritage of Mercedes-Benz's passion for design and its new models.'
Dan Prescott, auto show manager for Saab Cars USA Inc., proclaims that presenting the product is only half of the mission at auto shows.
'The other half is to present the brand,' he says.
Not only are brands getting a stronger push at auto shows, automakers are targeting specific areas with specific vehicles.
Such fine-tuned marketing efforts have been one reason for the growth of regional shows. In the last 10 years, the Seattle International Auto Show, for instance, has grown from a small affair put on by about 30 dealers and one manufacturer, Volkswagen, into a major event that attracts from 350,000 to 375,000 visitors annually. In Seattle, home to Boeing Corp. and Microsoft Corp., luxury import cars are showcased.
Saab thinks it can increase sales in the San Diego market because of the area's sizable population of young, affluent, independent thinkers the automaker targets. In February, Saab will make its second appearance at the San Diego International Auto Show.
For Mercedes-Benz, auto shows in Cleveland, Denver and Minneapolis have taken on new importance because the company can now pitch its all-wheel-drive M-class sport-utility as Mercedes' answer for those regions' inclement weather.
And for auto shows in Texas, full-sized sport-utilities and pickup trucks are the vehicles of choice.
'The cost of regional shows is complimentary to our marketing mix,' says Steve Keyes, vice president of communication at Volkswagen. 'They allow us to tell a much richer story than we could in a 30-second commercial.'
So what does the future hold for auto shows?
Expenditures likely will rise as manufacturers target their promotional efforts toward what Schmid of DaimlerChrysler describes as a 'captive, interested audience.' Considering the much-bandied statistic claiming that a vast majority (anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent) of those attending auto shows will purchase a vehicle within 12 months, automakers believe it's money well spent.
Nick Lico contributed to this report