Do Auto Shows Really Matter?

Do Consumers Really Matter When Concepts Are Unveiled?

Do you ever notice that each year there is a ton of news and excitement about the new season of auto shows? Well, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, anyway. The Los Angeles show comes before that one and doesn't come close to creating the excitement that the entertainment capital of the world is usually known for. Then comes Detroit, beautiful Detroit in January, but it always steals the auto show scene, leaving Chicago in February and then New York in April in its dust.

What connotes excitement? Usually, it is the almighty reveal. This year Detroit had over 20, including several concept cars:

2012 Audi A6
2012 BMW 1 Series M Coupe
2012 BMW 6 Series Convertible
2012 Buick Verano
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
2011 Chrysler 300
2012 Ford C-Max (North American debut)
2013 Ford C-Max Energi
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
2012 Hyundai Veloster
2011 Jeep Compass
2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2012 Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetec
2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in
2012 Toyota Prius V
2012 Volkswagen Passat (North American version)
Ford Vertrek concept
GMC Sierra All Terrain HD concept
2012 Honda Civic & Civic Si concept
Hyundai Curb concept
Kia KV7 concept
Mini Paceman concept
Porsche 918 RSR concept
Toyota Prius C concept

And in Chicago?

2012 Acura TL
2012 Buick Regal with eAssist
2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
2011 Chrysler 200 Convertible
2012 Dodge Charger SRT8
2011 Dodge Durango Heat
2012 Hyundai Genesis (including 5.0 R-Spec)
Hyundai Veloster rally car
2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class
2012 Nissan NV
2011 Ram 1500 Tradesman
2011 Ram 3500 HD
2012 Shelby GT350 Convertible
2011 Toyota Matrix
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI

Not only did Detroit have far more total introductions than Chicago, they were more significant launches as well. For instance, the all-new Audi A6 is a huge deal, while the Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition is truly special only in name. The launches in Chicago are nice but they are largely tweaks of an existing model, mildly warmed over refreshes and vehicles that sell in smaller volume segments, cars and trucks that carry less importance to the carmakers themselves.

But the bigger question from my perspective is whether or not the attendees at Chicago feel short-changed? As a marketer, and one who had responsibility for large parts of the auto show experience during my days at DaimlerChrysler, I can tell you that no matter what they say in the Windy City, Detroit is regarded as the most important show in North America.

It is because Detroit, by far, gets the greatest number and amount of press and the greatest volume of buzz. Very few automakers want to ignore that opportunity. In the past some have opted out of Detroit but it seems like they're all returning. Even Nissan, who has not exhibited at the Detroit show in recent years, has had a presence there. This year, Nissan pr people were feeding journalists in a room off the main show floor.

But is the auto show all about the media or is it for the consumer? Well, the press is designed to speak to many constituents, including Wall Street, other automakers, suppliers and yes, consumers. Detroit is clearly not the center of the earth in terms of car buying, obviously not when it seems like nearly everyone in southeastern Michigan gets a car company discount. Californians buy roughly one of every ten cars sold in the U.S. Texans buy one of every five trucks, and Chicago and New York are not both huge markets, much bigger than Detroit. So an auto show's significance as dictated by the press and the automakers is out of sync with the attendees and local markets.

This is really only one of the many signals that the auto shows seem to be more geared for the press than customers. The other is the experience itself. I remember going to the Milwaukee auto show as a kid. I was in awe of the sparkling cars being showcased by the dazzling girls all spinning in fabulous wonder on their turntables. Not much has changed from then to now. Why is that?

There have been sparks of inspiration. When I was at Chrysler, we turned the Jacob Javits Center's old exotic exhibit space into a "Trail-Rated" Jeep experience complete with 40 truck loads of dirt and treacherous hills and mud and rocks that people lined up for an hour to experience. In Chicago that year, we did a mini ride and drive of our then, new 300C, as well as the Dodge Charger. At other exhibits in today's shows you can get your picture taken with concept cars, engage in games and lots more but is it enough?

There are few places or times when people that truly love and are interested in cars all aggregate in one place at one time. I might liken it to fishing in a bucket. But the automakers have a hard time making that connection stick beyond those public auto show days, in part because they're so focused on the press. Because the car companies only have so many cars to reveal and money to support those reveals, shows outside of the top three -- in places like Milwaukee -- get very little love, even though the people that flock to those shows are equally as passionate as the ones that live near the big shows.

In the end, it is a shame that everyone can't be near one of these "auto show towns" to walk the aisles and stare in wonder at the concepts.

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