Exhibit companies aren't just pounding nails anymore. Today, auto companies are giving them the same challenges as in-house brand managers: increase customer retention, attract new customers worldwide and help cut marketing costs.
At auto shows, part of that responsibility falls upon companies such as George P. Johnson Co. of Auburn Hills, Mich., and Exhibit Enterprises Inc. of Dearborn, Mich. These companies build exhibits for many of the major auto companies around the world.
Steve Stanford, shows and exhibits manager at Cadillac, says: 'Nowadays, exhibit companies are involved much earlier in the process. It's not unusual for us to provide a company such as Johnson with a view of where we want to be five to 10 years down the road.'
This is a dramatic difference from just a couple of years ago, when auto companies looked upon exhibit companies as mere suppliers. In June, Saab Cars USA Inc. invited George P. Johnson's Saab representative to its headquarters in Sweden.
Dan Prescott, auto show manager at Saab, says this immersion into the brand is imperative because 'what we communicate at auto shows has to be consistent with the global brand message.'
While there are challenges in making sure that the message a company delivers to an auto show in New York also resonates with an audience in Tokyo, there are benefits.
'A primary benefit is the ability to deliver a consistent message throughout the world - both to the media and to consumers,' says Robert Albitz, vice president of design at Johnson. 'Of course, you also have to be cost-effective, and delivering a consistent message globally allows the automotive industry to do just that.'
Exhibits can easily exceed $1 million, and more elaborate ones, like the two-story GM Experience display at this year's Detroit auto show topped $10 million. In order to help keep costs down, both exhibit companies design the exhibit in-house, then work with suppliers or affiliates abroad to build it.
'This method gives us complete control of both the product and the environment,' says Richard Willenberg, vice president of sales at Exhibit Enterprises, adding that 'by providing our clients (such as DaimlerChrysler) these types of services, we can save them anywhere between 15 and 30 percent on the overall project, when compared to building everything in the U.S. and shipping it abroad.'
Albitz places the global marketing savings for Johnson's clients at about 20 percent. George P. Johnson also has an office in Stuttgart, Germany, to help handle auto shows in Europe and Asia.
Both companies have enjoyed sales growth in recent years. Revenues for Johnson will exceed $300 million this year, compared with $57 million in 1990. Exhibit Enterprises, meanwhile, has seen yearly revenues increase from $8 million to $40 million in the same period.