Detroit's North American International Auto Show has opened to the media.
All this week, automakers will be showing off their newest creations. They may be production cars just weeks away from the assembly line, pre-production prototypes or thinly disguised show cars that are destined for production in a few years. Or they may be wild and wonderful show cars that could shift the direction of the entire brand or nothing more than the imagination of the designer.
At the same time, the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show will be in the midst of its 10-day public run.
It is a time for cars and trucks. It is a time for the future. It is a time for some dreaming. And it is a time when the product is -without a doubt - king.
You have to have a lot of basics these days: Reliability, real value for your price, real quality without any exceptions. Those are just the price of admission. Without them, you don't even get into the ballgame.
But in the end, you must have something that creates passion in the mind of the buyer.
I don't care what segment you're talking about - everyone wants to feel good about his or her vehicle. Even the buyer of a gray, four-door sedan wants to have the best-looking gray sedan on the block.
This is going to be a tough year. Profits will be hard to find, and sales will be a bit soft. How soft is anyone's guess.
So what will be successful? The cars and trucks that excite people. When car companies try to decide which vehicles need rebates, the ugly ducklings will be first.
Just look at what attracts people at auto shows. They don't line up for the plain Janes. They want to see the trucks and cars that excite them. And if people can afford them, they'll buy them.
That is competition at its best.
That is when the real brand managers can get into a donnybrook over marketing and see who can make the most from their products. And that's what real brand management is all about: Making sure that a product has the best value and is the best looking.
I'll never forget walking down the rows of Packards in Bill Harrah's collection at the automobile museum in Reno, Nev., and realizing why Packard went out of business.
Some looked great; some were terrible. But each year demonstrated just how important design is to success.
Car shows give us the best opportunity to assess the value of the manufacturers. And there is still nothing else quite like the North American International Auto Show.
We'll see the winners, and we'll see the losers, long term and short term. And we'll all be able to figure it out.