By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Now that the annual greed-fest, oh, excuse me, the “celebration of the automobile in all of its glory” – or whatever the organizers of the auto-oriented extravaganza on the Monterey Peninsula want you to believe – has mercifully come to an end, it might be a good idea to step back and take stock of the current state of that event and other industry-related issues as the end of summer approaches.
First of all, any notion that the events during Monterey Car Week are anything but orchestrated pandering by the manufacturers and grandiose price manipulation by the auction houses should have been dispensed with long ago.
I will dismiss what goes on at the auction houses who are allegedly there in “celebration” of the automobile during the Monterey Car Week for what that truly is: flat-out greed and extreme price manipulation. I’m not going to get into some of the individual price atrocities – okay, just one: over $1 million for a ’74 Porsche 911 RS? You have got to be kidding – because it is graphic evidence that the car collecting “hobby” has deteriorated into a festering sea of price manipulators, con artists and a collection of parasites who know nothing about the cars and who could care even less about what they represent. Instead, they only know that there’s money to be made and that they need to be there.
That there will always be fools and their money in and around the car business is a given - frankly the concept of “stupid” money, if not invented in the car collection game, has certainly been honed to perfection in that arena – but we’ve now reached the point of a super-heated bubble, and I will not shed one tear if the whole thing comes crashing down in a correction of biblical proportions. Enough about that.
The other defining aspect of the Monterey Car Week that has lost all sense of rationality is what the world’s luxury manufacturers endeavor to accomplish during that week. Manufacturers inundate prime display space in and around the Pebble Beach golf facility in order to court dealers, high-rolling customers and the odd independent souls who have managed to garner the right credentials.
By being part of the scene at Pebble Beach during Monterey Car Week, the manufacturers all believe that they can orchestrate their brand “visions” to a fare-thee-well, that they can create wonderfully rich tapestries and orchestrate idyllic impressions that they can’t do anywhere else, and that the results far outweigh the staggering costs associated with doing it.
And it’s all unmitigated bullshit too.
The danger of high-wire image wrangling for these luxury auto manufacturers is that the desired impact is fleeting. With luxury auto manufacturer after luxury auto manufacturer having set up camp in Monterey for years now, the creep of sameness wafts over the proceedings in a tedious dance unfolding to the beat of we’ve seen it all before. And that’s because we have seen it all before.
And yet, inevitably with each new year a new manufacturer arrives on the scene who is aching to belong to “the club,” actually believing that they will somehow be different, that they will bring something to the party that no one has seen before, that by being there they will finally ascend to the glorified strata of manufacturers that matter.
Too bad it doesn’t work that way. After a while the manufacturer villages and compounds – or even worse, the midway at The Quail, which has turned into a high-level huckster paradise – tend to blend together in one giant ball of indistinguishable marketing come-ons.
It’s the same exact positioning (even though every manufacturer insists that they are different), it’s the same overused executional tactics, it’s the same “serene settings” and “sublimely luxurious immersions,” and it’s the same damn story from every single manufacturer, no matter how hard they try and no matter how much they insist that they truly have it all goin’ on. And they’re kidding themselves if they think it’s any different than that.
When does it end? Probably not anytime soon. That’s because there’s a decided lack of genuinely bold and visionary thinking coming from the marketers at these manufacturers. They do most of everything they do because they’re afraid that if they don’t that they will somehow miss it. But when they don’t have a clue as to what “it” is, this obligatory dance of sameness and predictability will go on indefinitely.
I would be remiss if I didn’t close out this week’s column without mentioning the latest installment of The Great Sergio’s impending train wreck, aka the grandiose – and fictional – marketing launch plan for Alfa Romeo.
Marchionne has appointed Reid Bigland as the new brand leader in the U.S. for Alfa Romeo. Bigland has been riding the red-hot wave of Ram Truck sales – and a red-hot pickup truck market here in the U.S. - to great heights within Sergio’s mess of an organization, but with this “promotion” his victory lap has just come to a resounding halt.
The numbers associated with Alfa Romeo aren’t pretty. Marchionne says that FCA is going to spend $6.9 billion on the ancient Italian brand and that in 2018 – less than four years from right now - they will be selling upwards of 75,000 vehicles here in the U.S. and 400,000 globally, instantly putting it on a par with Audi, BMW and the rest in terms of cachet and prestige.
Just to add some perspective to this ridiculous plan, Alfa Romeo sold 74,000 vehicles total last year. That some analysts have deigned to actually suggest that the plan is doable is a complete farce unto itself, but thankfully the majority of analysts polled have laughed the notion right out of their offices.
But The Great Sergio isn’t considered a Master Manipulator for nothing. If Alfa Romeo doesn’t come close to its ridiculously aggressive targets, he can quietly slink away from the dock as the Alfa Romeo luxury liner does its pirouette into the salty depths. And then he can pronounce his disappointment as “troubling” and decisively put the blame on Bigland, while keeping his genius reputation unsullied and intact.
It’s not every day that Marchionne anoints a star in the organization publicly, after all – and let’s be clear – the sun, the moon and the stars revolve around The Great Sergio, and don’t you dare forget it. But this move is as slick as it gets. If Alfa somehow makes a good showing, Marchionne gets all the credit. If it implodes, Bigland sleeps with the fishes.
Strange days indeed.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.