Is the Auto Show Outdated, or Should Brands Rethink Their Approach?

Lauren Kuhnie, Growth Director, Detroit

4 Key Takeaways from the 2023 North American International Auto Show

With the pandemic's disruptive dust hopefully settling for good, major auto shows like the North American International Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS) are making a comeback as flagship brand experiences. But the dormant pandemic period, and subsequent industrial and technological changes have set the stage for a new approach to these events. Despite lower attendance and evolving customer expectations, brands have a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on these shifts by embracing the right approach—aligning with their customers and riding the wave of change.

#1 - Business Outcomes Beat ‘Butts in Seats’.

Instead of simply sitting in a stationary vehicle while a product specialist engages the crowd on the "why buys" and "Best In Class Claims", consumers now crave a dynamic driving experience. They no longer wish to visit a dealership merely to touch, see, and hear about vehicles and brands; they desire something more. A challenge and opportunity at the core of experiential marketing.

Today's auto consumers possess the savvy to not only seek out experiential spaces or live events but also to leave with a genuine understanding of how the vehicle performs. Brands must also evolve, elevating test driving experiences to a central asset for relevance in the future.

Imagine if a brand embraced the ambition to transform their auto show space into a comprehensive experiential drive track, featuring static vehicles along the queue line but with a strong focus on engaging ride and drives, rather than just getting butts in seats.

#2 - To Stand Out, Brands Should Take the Reins.

To achieve success at trade shows with today's audiences, brands must be flexible. Traditionally, brands at the forefront of the auto show followed a predictable pattern, showcasing their iconic moments to international media in the same manner year after year. However, this year, Ford took a bold step, following the suite of brands like Genesis in the past, by unveiling their F-15 design revamp a day before the official media days on the show floor. 

Demanding audiences mean brands now have the opportunity to use trade show events as a stepping stone to enrich a broader brand experience. For instance, an exclusive ride/drive experience could be tailored to media events, parties, and hotels throughout the city, allowing brands to stand out, dominate the streets, and surprise show-goers with a positive applicable brand experience meant to drive sales. Brands might also leverage an influencer strategy, collaborating with partners during press days and engaging micro-influencers to connect with audiences during public days.

The 2023 North American International Auto Show

#3 - Go Sustainable or Go Home.

What was once a month-long installation involving millions of dollars spent on builds that would ultimately be discarded after the show, has transformed in response to a more sustainably-minded audience. Most leading brands now emphasize reduced emissions as a fundamental aspect of their corporate identity. This shift was evident at this year's Detroit Auto Show, where fewer vehicles were on display and a reduction in product specialists was observed as a byproduct of this sustainability focus.

However, brands can turn these cutbacks into a positive narrative—for instance, fewer staffing requirements equate to a decrease in emissions, aligning with the sustainability ethos. Ultimately, events like these need to move away from the "build and burn" approach, prioritizing quality over quantity. Reusability should be a key focus, utilizing versatile elements like trusses instead of one-time, custom-built solutions, creating a more sustainable event setup that can be utilized across various brand events.

RAM at the 2023 North American International Auto Show

#4 - Auto Shows are Not Going Anywhere.

Attracting a whopping 800,000 individuals in just 9 days, spanning diverse demographics at a ticketed event they have sought out to attend; people will always seek out the public days at auto shows to avoid sales interactions and to peruse vehicles in one location. 

In this environment, brands possess a golden opportunity to be daring and innovative. They can seize the public days to create moments of surprise and delight, regardless of whether they're an auto brand, supplier, or a non-automotive brand altogether. Leveraging product sampling, promotional items, and crafting Instagram-worthy experiences can leave a lasting imprint on attendees. 

Fundamentally, it falls upon the brands to define the kind of experience they wish their prospective buyers to encounter. Let's face it—these are "in market buyers," and data shows that auto shows boast higher sales conversions compared to other automotive marketing platforms.

To wrap, I would argue the Detroit auto show offers a unique opportunity for a brand to stand out, take risks, and leave a lasting impression on an international stage, particularly when this medium isn't fully utilized by others. It's a stage to captivate the audience and make a mark in a way that sets a brand apart from the crowd.

Lauren is the US Growth Director at Set Creative, based in Detroit.

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