The marketing extravaganza that is the British Motor Show is attempting to redefine itself following years of decline and high-profile desertions.
Car manufacturers have been turning their backs on the show, choosing to launch their models at the grander shows in Geneva, Tokyo, Detroit, Paris and Frankfurt instead, while attendances at the British Motor Show have been in steady decline, from 700,000 in 1998 to only 485,000 in 2002.
The organiser, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), last year decided to convene a steering committee made up of the industry’s marketing directors, who sign along the dotted line for the multi-million cost of attending the show.
The marketing directors decided the show needed a new direction. They quickly agreed to take a leaf out of Mini’s book and emulate BMW’s Mini Live Adventure, a show featuring the cars being put through their paces by stunt drivers. They are hoping the more experiential format will entice 600,000 people through the doors.
“From cars on carpets to a driving show for all the family” is how Andrew Andersz, public relations director of The Sunday Times Motor Show Live (to give it its formal title), describes the change. The experiential format of Mini Live Adventures is being extended to incorporate a variety of interactive events, from an off-road course to test drives, and an arena-based show, Motropolis, at extra charge.
The £1m sponsorship by The Sunday Times also means that the show has the support of News International. American Express and Classic FM are also sponsoring the event, while European Union grants have funded a £1.2m television campaign.
While the exhibitors are naturally upbeat about the new format, there are notable absences. BMW and Alfa Romeo will not be exhibiting, and Mercedes-Benz will only be showing its SLR McLaren supercar and Maybach luxury saloon.
BMW’s decision not to attend has drawn accusations of arrogance. However, its quintessentially British marques Mini and Rolls-Royce are exhibiting. A BMW spokesman says: “For the ‘A’ word to creep in is inappropriate. It is not meant as a snub.”
For BMW, the Motor Show is not interactive enough, and the Bavarian marque prefers to spend its money on invitation-only driving events at its BMW Performance Centre at the Rockingham race circuit. “Instead of static displays, we prefer events where people can drive the cars,” a spokesman says.
For its part, Alfa Romeo is channelling its marketing spend into support of the European Touring Car Championships, which it currently leads, when the event arrives in the UK later this year.
The SMMT describes BMW’s decision as “disappointing”. CitroÃÂ«n public affairs director Marc Raven is more scathing: “Whether BMW’s decision not to attend the Motor Show is damaging for the show or BMW, the British people will decide.”
Unlike BMW, CitroÃÂ«n feels there is a need to foster loyalty among existing customers, by displaying its future direction. It welcomes the new approach of the Disney-esque formula of the Motropolis, the live display in which its C2 hatchback will feature.
Vauxhall marketing director Andy Gilson also feels that attendance is crucial for his marque. He says: “As a good British brand we like to support the Motor Show.” Vauxhall will be launching VXR, its new performance brand at the show.
Ford’s exhibit at the show is tied into a sales promotion to coincide with its product placement in the Thunderbirds film, due for release later this year. Ford is digging a lake at the NEC for its stand to recreate Tracy Island. The family-friendly approach is very different from the “dolly birds on bonnets” tactic historically associated with car advertising, and which drew scathing criticism from Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt a couple of years ago.
And there is a sign that confidence is returning to the Motor Show. Renault, for the first time, has a world premiere in the UK – unveiling the Modus. It points out that the UK is its third-largest market (which incidentally is also the case for absentees Mercedes and BMW).
While BMW and Alfa Romeo feel they have better uses for their marketing budgets, CitroÃÂ«n’s Raven says the Motor Show provides an ideal audience. Unlike TV advertising, the event has a captive audience that is self-selecting and interested in cars. And as a mass-market manufacturer, CitroÃÂ«n is providing exactly the cars that the families attending might buy.
But at the other end of the spectrum, Ferrari and Maserati head of marketing James Pillar says the Motor Show is essential to maintain public awareness. He also admits that there is an acknowledgement that Ferrari is very important for the Motor Show.
Ferrari’s attendance at the Motor Show (and at the Goodwood Festival of Speed) is its only public marketing, says Pillar – the rest of its activity revolves around private events.
Whether or not the British Motor Show succeeds in regaining its former stature, the experiential approach to marketing cars looks set to grow.