This month's Frankfurt auto show was shocking, not for the myriad electric vehicles that dominated the show stands, but for just how few show stands there were at Europe's largest auto show.
These two seemingly disparate facts are, actually, interrelated and a worrisome sign that regulatory demands for electric propulsion — as well as competitive pressure to develop automated driving — are squeezing the operational budgets of global automakers.
When crunch time hits, marketing budgets are almost always among the first casualties, and vastly weakened auto shows are evidence of that.
Some two dozen brands and several of the world's largest automakers chose to skip the biennial show. Those who remained greatly scaled back their displays. The combined results left several formerly filled halls dark, while others had displays that would never have found floor space in previous years. In this way, Frankfurt was eerily reminiscent of the disappointing 2019 Detroit auto show — and a potent argument that the worrisome conditions that compelled Detroit show organizers to switch their 2020 event from January to June actually have little to do with the weather.
Still, auto shows large and small remain terribly successful in their primary mission: to get consumers informed and motivated to purchase new vehicles. They are a relative bargain for automakers and dealers compared with the costs of some regional or national advertising campaigns. And they should double-down on this fact by prioritizing their investments to ensure that shows' public days continue to provide value for both automakers' marketing efforts and consumers' entertainment dollars.
It's the pre-show press days that are under pressure — and rightfully so. Elaborately staged back-to-back press conferences are of little use when most automakers have already distributed images and information to the media under embargo, and their stories or videos are already largely done.
We have suggested previously that the number of press conferences per show should be limited so that supply does not outstrip demand, and we stand by that assertion.
Auto shows globally will have to find their way through the lean times that are upon them or risk losing their share of automaker marketing budgets altogether.