Off-road blues

This year’s British International Motor Show has attracted a record number of exhibitors. Although deemed a commercial success, it has suffered from a low standard of exhibits.

It played host to most of the world’s leading car manufacturers, attracting some 600,000 visitors. It generated tens of thousands of sales leads. And despite significant problems with the UK railways, which led to a 50 per cent fall in visitors travelling to the exhibition by train, organisers of this year’s British International Motor Show 2000 have hailed it the most successful on record.

Yet the show, staged at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre in October, was plagued by poorly thought-out exhibits, most of which failed to impress visitors.

The world’s premier motor shows take place in Frankfurt and Paris, and it appears that manufacturers do not make much effort to impress visitors at the less important Birmingham-based event.

And Rover, the troubled local manufacturer, chose not to attend at all.

“Our exhibiting decisions are made purely for business reasons,” says Gordon Poynter, director of communications and public affairs at the MG Rover Group.

“If an exhibition ties in with our new launches or business strategy then we would rule it in rather than out. Rover was not at Birmingham or Paris this year but we have taken space at a major show in Australia to announce the new MG Rover operation there.”

He says that in Europe there are also “selling” shows such as the one in Belgium, and about 35 per cent of sales are made in the period surrounding these events. This type of show is therefore more important from a business strategy point of view. Although Rover does not rule out returning to Birmingham if it meets its business strategy or if it is launching a model at the same time, it doesn’t need to be at the show, he says.

“We already have a very high awareness in the UK. It’s interesting that the chief executives of the major car manufacturers went to Paris rather than Birmingham, it’s just not on the A-class list,” adds Poynter.

Rover aside, the majority of the world’s leading manufacturers were present but, on the exhibition front, few made a particularly strong impression.

Arguably, the most significant development was Ford’s decision to group all its marques in Hall Four which it took over in a clear attempt to establish the Ford brand “family”.

“This allowed Ford to have a bespoke environment and gave it greater control,” says John Butler, account director for Ford Motor Company brands at design agency Imagination.

“This process started in Detroit last year and the intention was to show consumers and the press that Ford owned the brands and was able to speak with a common voice.”

Grouping Ford, Volvo, Mazda, Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin obviously has advantages but also poses a problem. The company needs to avoid the danger of undermining the distinctive individual brand values.

An Aston Martin is not a mass-produced vehicle from the same stable as a Ford Focus, and there are industry experts who believe that “clustering” requires a delicate balancing act to get the right message across.

“A new question is being asked by the motor show visitor – ‘Which motor group I am part of?’,” says Derrick Tuke-Hastings, chairman of Park Avenue. He is a live event specialist who works with Opel among others and has also had to consider this question on behalf of clients.

Marque of distinction

“For many Aston Martin or Jaguar owners or indeed any other distinctive marque owners, the answer is not necessarily the one that they were hoping for. This gives rise to the next question, what does being part of the Ford group, VW group or the GM group mean to me?” TukeHastings doesn’t believe that the question is being answered.

“Many manufacturers think that clustering can be communicated by architecture alone, such as the use of vast blue corridors, or roofing that spans the marques. Whereas this might help to delineate the boundaries of the group on the less crowded press days, it does not begin to communicate the perceived benefits of ‘group’ membership, particularly when the spaces become crowded on public days.

“The groups working on it, trying to develop a narrative that will satisfy the group members, realise it’s a difficult task, especially when your group name may be that of a mass-produced vehicle. Meanwhile, at motor shows around the world, the architectural clustering will continue, with members of the groups – those once highly individual brands – clustered together in the name of the group, frankly looking like uneasy guests at a dinner party where the hostess has got her guest mix totally wrong.”

However, John Felice, portfolio brand strategy manager, global marketing at the Ford Motor Company believes that there are advantages to the company’s approach:

“Our strategy has been to develop a ‘trustmark’ and the goal is to have a portfolio of strong and distinctive primary brands. This doesn’t mean you’ll see the Ford blue oval associated with Jaguar. The blue oval is now a marque in itself, the family is promoted through the Ford Motor Company script.

“Our research shows that consumers don’t want that Ford script blatantly brought to the front, but they do appreciate the benefits that Ford brings. Many, for example, understand that Ford owns Jaguar and in terms of quality the marque has gone from worst in class to best in six years.

“We don’t want non-differentiated brands, but we want to communicate the benefits of having a portfolio of vehicle brands and this includes providing a transport solution to customers throughout their lives. Knowing that Ford is behind the marques gives people confidence and we can begin to leverage the benefit of the customer being in the family. They rent from Hertz, which uses Ford vehicles or, for example, when Jaguar owners buy a second car, it’s rarely another Jaguar, but it could be a Ford. Over time we want to leverage the portfolio both vertically and horizontally.

“In terms of communicating, the approach is subtle, but we are introducing the corporate trustmark script more frequently. But the strong individual primary brand is critical and this is why the stands at the motor show are controlled by the marques but set within the brand family.”

Certainly there were distinctions in the design approach within Hall Four. Aston Martin, for example, used a polished stone backdrop with water features whereas Land Rover was presented in a rugged, off-road setting with vehicles raised and at an angle to demonstrate the marque’s capabilities.

“The stands are designed first with individual brand identities in mind,” says Butler. “Then they are designed to fit in with the Ford Motor Company corporate identity, but the process includes using different agencies to develop the initial approach, followed by a discussion about all the brands’ individual areas within the context of a co-located environment.”

Arguably the most innovative part of the Ford Motor Company’s display area was the e-commerce area that Imagination created in the centre of Hall Four. The area featured a series of interactive pods where visitors were able to choose virtual characters to experience motoring scenarios.

“We presented situations that are either plausible now or will be in the near future,” said Butler.

“This included telematics – providing the ability to have your vehicle linked to the Internet. One example features a woman driving down the street as the car develops a technical problem. The car automatically communicates with a Ford service centre and the problem is resolved – the in-car system analyses the problem and then books an appointment, without having to use the phone. It’s a three-dimensional expression of Ford’s digital strategy in which a consumer can learn something about what the company will be doing in the near term.”

Many exhibitors now include interactive information systems and feature corporate websites. In most cases this appears to be an afterthought tacked onto an existing design, although such an accusation certainly couldn’t be levelled at Saab, which produced a distinctive stand featuring a design flexibility that enabled the different elements to be changed during the show.

The key visual feature was a large wavy banner in the form of a filmstrip that created a partition between the various sections of the stand. Apart from its eye-catching design and the reflection of current advertising material, the feature could be moved to reconfigure hospitality, display and interactive areas according to need. On press day, for example, the hospitality area was extended to cater for the large number of journalists attending, whereas on public days the interactive area was afforded more space.

The Saab stand was also one of the few at the show that created a clear brand statement. Although many of the up-market manufacturers had stands that implied the cars were in the luxury class and several, such as Audi, were also able to convey a sense of style, few managed to go beyond token gestures in their image development. The Saab stand was an exception, portraying a combination of heritage, style and technology.

Scandinavian roots

This was achieved using a distinctly Scandinavian feel through the use of light polished woods, glass flooring and the smorgasbord and schnapps offerings to VIP guests.

“The stand was a confident statement of what we are,” says Göran Anderson, manager exhibitions, global brand management at Saab.

“We wanted to express our Scandinavian heritage but wanted the materials to reflect the product. Many of our customers are designers or architects and we were keen to emphasise the design of the car through the setting created. For this reason all the cars on the stand were black, to provide a contrast with the surroundings and to add a sense of style. Although technology is an important element of a Saab, this was not a key area, our customers are more interested in design than gadgets, so we were keen to portray it subtly, using touch screen information systems and some modern materials.”

The Saab stand was well designed – but can hardly be described as awe-inspiring. It set a level that should be a benchmark in such a high spending, image-conscious industry, but instead it was among the very best.

To blame the standard of exhibits on the overall standing of the British International Motor Show would be unfair. The event might not be in the “A class” of international events, but the stands, or at least some elements of them, travel the world and if the show is worth doing, it should be worth doing well.

However, it seems that few manufacturers will pull out all the stops because the event is simply not that important. The shame is that many exhibition designers report that the NEC is actually one of the better motor show venues to work in, in terms of both available space and co-operation from the organisers.

Ultimately, the highlight of most motor shows tends to be the stand of a manufacturer representing the host nation. It really is asking a bit much of the likes of British TVR sports cars to steal the show.

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