When BMW unveiled a redesign of its M5 sport sedan in 2011, the car had to jockey for attention among nearly 50 production vehicles debuting at the Frankfurt auto show. Last year, the automaker went a very different route to generate buzz for the sixth- generation M5 without having to share the spotlight.
It revealed the car in a video game.
The 2018 M5 showed up in teasers for "Need for Speed Payback" last summer before appearing at a gaming convention and then an esports competition at an arena in Paris. After all that, BMW finally showed it to auto journalists at the Frankfurt show in September.
BMW's strategy, unthinkable only a few years ago, illustrates how the digital era is transforming the way automakers introduce vehicles. The shift has left many of the big international auto shows grasping for answers as brands increasingly connect with consumers through Instagram and YouTube instead.
The Detroit show, already noticeably more sparse and less flashy in recent years, is losing all three German luxury brands for 2019. Mercedes-Benz said in February that it's dropping out, followed by BMW in March and Audi last week."We're reviewing the auto show footprint to say, 'Where does it really make sense, which formats make sense, to get journalists, to get customers, to show and display your vehicles?' " Bernhard Kuhnt, CEO of BMW of North America, told Automotive News. "We're definitely going to invest into other formats as well. The auto show is not the right format only."
For Detroit, losing the three German luxury brands — on top of earlier departures by some smaller manufacturers — threatens to create a domino effect, with fewer journalists deciding to attend and then even more brands reconsidering the investment required to be there.
"If there is less press, that puts us in a bind," said Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America. "I don't need to spend all this money."
Beyond video games, automakers have livestreamed unveilings, debuted cars on morning TV shows and launched vehicles at trade expos such as the big CES tech show in Las Vegas, which happens just days before the Detroit show each January. Automakers have increasingly decided it's more worth their money to host private introductions at far-off locations in between auto shows, letting journalists spend a day or two with a vehicle instead of doing just a quick walk-around sandwiched between other unveilings.
"There are a lot of choices about how to communicate your information and where and when, and auto shows are no longer a default," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit. "You don't have to be at any particular show. The auto shows are having a hard time navigating why the change is happening, what the change really is and how to react to it."
Show organizers in Detroit are re-examining how the event is staged, including its January timing.
The industry is watching closely. It's not just Detroit losing exhibitors. Several key brands have opted out of the most recent shows in Geneva, Frankfurt and Paris. At the same time, growth in China has fueled new shows there that compete with more established ones for automaker dollars.
"The marketplace is changing right before our eyes," said Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which puts on the Detroit show. "Every show, whether it's a regional or an international show, has a place in what's going on with the auto industry. But the key is that they all make adjustments along the way to make sure they're relevant to what is needed and making sure the brands and the manufacturers are getting what they need out of those shows."
DADA is considering moving Detroit's show to October or June, when the weather will be better and automakers can stage outdoor ride-and-drives or other activities to convince consumers of their vehicles' merits. Show organizers are gathering input from all stakeholders, including automakers, and a decision is expected this summer, or possibly sooner, Alberts said.
If the show moves, it's expected to happen in 2020, pushing that year's show to the summer or fall. There are discussions about holding a smaller event on the new timetable in 2019 to try out elements such as outdoor test drives — and to help bridge what would otherwise be a 17- to 21-month gap between Detroit's turns on the auto show circuit.
Show organizers started looking at a move in February after Mercedes dropped out for 2019, citing product launch cadence and acknowledging increased competition confronting auto shows. The deliberations took on more urgency when BMW and Audi followed suit. Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, Volvo and Mazda also have left in recent years, while the displays of many that remain have shrunk.