By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Editor's Note: Well, that was special. Our recent extended stay in tech hell has sure left us feeling all warm and fuzzy. Not. The Internet is awesome and all, but sometimesitreallysucks.com. Peter will be back this week with a new column. -WG
Detroit. Now that the first wave of the SXSW love-in has finished, and the corporate sponsors, tech companies, digital gurus, movie shills, advertising flacks and other assorted hangers-on are fleeing Austin so that the real part of the festival can begin – with the focus placed squarely on the music, as it used to be – what have we learned?
That the SXSW event has finally reached its sell-by limit? That the corporate influx and obsession with “being there” and being part of the scene has reached the saturation point and has completely overshadowed any long-fading notions that some magical learning will take place?
Yes to all of that, and more.
Corporate America overrunning the SXSW festival and pounding it into the ground is just the natural order of things. It’s how corporate America rolls, it just can’t help it. It goes something like this: Marketing minions glom on to a happening and target an event, insisting that it’s a Good Thing and that they absolutely must have a presence there, so that they can attest that they’re of-the-moment hip. The assumption being that gravitas and hipness are achieved by association, which allows the marketing minions to get all smug and cocky while bragging to their CEOs, “See how hip we are? See how many mentions we got on social media? Isn’t this proof that we’re a happenin’ company and shouldn’t we get a gold star of some kind for being so smart as to capitalize on all of it to our benefit?”
Except that there’s no benefit to self-promotional bloviating. It’s like selling air to other panhandlers of air. Everyone nods and smiles and is thrilled to be in Austin on an expense account. But the revelations are hard to come by, and the meaningful, substantive discussions are fleeting at best. And the presence of myriad corporate shills marginalizes the proceedings and pounds it into submission, completely destroying any sense of whatever the event once was and is supposed to be.
The other cold hard reality that we were reminded of this week is that when pressed, the advertising business will sink to its default setting every time, which is to pat itself on the back, promote how brilliant they think they are, and generally do its best imitation of Hollywood, the Self-Absorbed Capital of the World. But that’s fodder for another column.
What does this have to do with the car business? Plenty. Because the same sort of thing goes on all the time – especially with the luxury automakers – in that they’re in a perpetual race to be perceived as being on the cutting edge. Chasing gravitas is not only a cottage industry among the luxury automakers, it’s a full-on obsession.
I’m not talking about the usual stuff, like golf and tennis tournament sponsorships, sports star affiliation, or rubbing up against Hollywood star-studded events, which some manufacturers regularly engage in and obsessively so, I might add. I’m talking about the luxury automakers “owning” events in the pursuit of cultural hipness, thinking that if they’re there the positive rub-off will be inescapable and automatic, and they will be able to truly “connect” with their customers.
The best example of this is what has happened to “The Quail. A Motorsports Gathering.” I’ve written about this before, but usually after the orgy of automotive events on the Monterey Peninsula in August. So maybe writing about it now will cause some marketers to suffer some sort of guilt seizure, a shocking revelation of lucidity that will somehow force them to come to their senses about their propensity to throw money at events in the hope of achieving image gravitas, aka marketing nirvana.
Nah, who am I kidding? The luxury auto manufacturers have committed to The Quail and other events during the Monterey car week 18 to 24 months out, and there’s absolutely no turning back for them now.
What has happened to The Quail is a classic example of corporate sponsorship – specifically with the luxury automakers - run amuck. The Quail has now been turned into a huckster’s paradise, an event designed to project the “luxury lifestyle” on people who are willing to pay upwards of $700 a ticket to roam among the vehicles on display, wander through the manufacturer tents and have lunch too. It’s all very civil. And it has also become a giant waste of time as the luxury manufacturers vie for image superiority and attention in a sea of other luxury manufacturers elbowing each other to achieve the same thing.
The result? Much talking to themselves goes on - there's that selling air thing again - reinforcing the fundamental belief of the marketing “geniuses” calling the shots that if they’re there they must, in fact, be getting their money’s worth because look at all the people roaming around through our tent! It must count for something, right? Right?
Wrong. It’s gravitas by association and it counts for absolutely zero in the Big Picture of luxury marketing. True luxury automakers that have won their standing the hard way by building great products and delivering on their brand image consistently over time will always win out.
On the other hand, luxury automakers new to the game that show up and make a big splash, then expect the tide to change overnight are usually sorely disappointed.
Two luxury manufacturers swimming against the tide right now are Cadillac and Lincoln. Cadillac is desperate to get out of its rut of constantly being dismissed as the American luxury automaker that’s always trying to be something else, instead of owning its heritage and adding to its legacy in a positive way. We’ve been through the out-running the German luxury cars at the Nurburgring thing – make no mistake, the high-performance Cadillac models are superb – but that will never sustain or nurture the brand going forward. There has to be something more in order for Cadillac to get back into the discussion. There has to be a distinctive raison d’etre in order for the brand to grow out of its two steps forward, three back dance of malaise.
And Lincoln has been lost in the desert for so long that just returning to the edge of the luxury radar screen is a minor achievement. But that isn’t going to be nearly enough either. Lincoln needs to do more, and glomming on to hipster events of-the-moment will never be the answer. The answer for Lincoln will be new product. Not “me-too” entries just to cover the segment du jour, but compelling machines with a real point of view. That means distinctively designed machines that bristle with confidence and exude a subtle awareness of the brand’s heritage, while projecting its brand image forward in the hopes of enthralling a new generation of buyers.
Yes, of course that’s all easier said than done. I have said repeatedly that it will take Lincoln and Cadillac years – as in over a decade – to move the needle. But the fact of the matter is that they will never achieve the plateau of respectability currently wrestled over by Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.
And that’s not a bad thing necessarily, as long as the stewards of both of these American luxury nameplates deliver a distinctive point of view all their own, one that can’t be confused with any other brand. Believe me that’s a tall order, especially when there are so many “distractions” – like chasing gravitas by association – or any number of time and money wasters currently in vogue among the luxury manufacturers.
This just in: Hipness can’t be bestowed by just showing up at a hip event, and gravitas can’t be bought either. In fact, it’s a fool’s errand.
But then again, you know what they say about fools and their money…
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.