By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. These are the dog days of summer in the car business, and with the scorching weather being particularly overheated this year around here, things seem to be grinding to their inevitable and at times excruciating conclusion.
The summer sell-down mode has been cranking since June 1st – punctuated by the Memorial Day and Independence Day sales, which run together - and I’m reminded that the automotive calendar hinges on the following selling “seasons”: The fall new model intro, which lasts about six weeks, if that; followed by the traditional holiday sales push, which basically runs from November through December spilling over into January, when the January-February winter sell-a-thon begins. Then the spring selling season begins in March, which takes us through the end of May; and then the whole thing starts all over again in June. And let’s not forget that in the auto business, somehow it’s always Truck Month somewhere.
It’s difficult to see where on this automotive calendar that new car and truck excitement is supposed to happen. In ancient times, the fall intro season for the automotive industry was a huge deal, with the manufacturers carefully orchestrating their product roll-outs so as not to step on each other. Dealers in towns big and small all across America got into it, papering over windows, covering the new cars on the transport trucks and then having intro parties in their showroom on “Announcement Day.” But that quaint ritual fell by the wayside decades ago.
I’d say we’re all better off for it and that time marches on, etc., but the fact of the matter is that when that ritual became obsolete something was lost in this business and it has never been adequately replaced, even with all of the spectacular high-tech introductions that are commonplace now.
Today? The various major league auto shows are supposed to play that role, but the excitement at those shows is fleetingly intermittent, at best, with the obligatory photo and information leaks that are part and parcel of this 24/7 Internet information age sucking the life out of any sort of legitimate surprise. That’s why the reveal of the Ford GT at Detroit in January 2015 was such a masterstroke. Nobody talked, nothing leaked and the assembled media types were bowled over by the surprise, with the impact of that intro resonating for months.
That Ford took painstakingly clandestine measures to ensure that very few people knew about the “new” Ford GT made the “closed” intro that much more worth it. There’s a crucial lesson in there for the other manufacturers, so we’ll see which of those companies takes heed in order to create their own product “surprises” in the coming months and years. I’m not so sure there are many car companies out there who have the wherewithal – or the will – to pull something like that off, but I remain hopeful.
What can be done about it? Not much. The globalization of the auto industry means that new vehicle introductions are occurring monthly, with the really important, “big deal” introductions apportioned over the major auto shows on the calendar.
For the consumers who are actually interested in the automobile and the automobile business, this means that they’re reading about and seeing pictures of – or seeing in person at auto shows – vehicles that are anywhere from twelve to eighteen months away, and sometimes even longer than that. Most recently, Honda famously teased its Acura NSX sports car over the last four years in a desperate attempt at making the point that they indeed did have it going on. It’s a good thing that the car is a very nice piece, but still, it’s hard to prevent the lingering impression that everyone has seen it before, which isn’t exactly the way you want to start enticing people to become buyers.
Add the relentless “same as it ever was” cadence of the automotive calendar to the proceedings and it is no wonder this business has become predictable and too often devoid of real excitement. But wait, you might ask, what about the overwhelming number of “experiential” car events happening now, doesn’t that count for some measure of excitement?
It probably did a half-decade ago, but now that every auto manufacturer has some sort of drive or image event, it’s hard to differentiate or stand out when pretty much everything has been done before. There are ride and drives with catered fare, on-track driving experiences aimed at the “sporty” crowd, official brand “happenings” supported by the factories, and on, and on, and on. But unless it’s truly something special, I don’t think any of it counts for much. (The Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, soon to be joined by one in Southern California, counts as something truly special, in case you’re wondering.)
Let’s take the luxury auto manufacturers, for instance. In a couple of weeks they will be inundating the Monterey Peninsula and Pebble Beach with “exclusive” and “invitation only” events, each trying to outdo the other with the setting or the level of opulence on hand, all in time-honored, over-the-top fashion. Some sharper minds in the auto marketing and PR ranks – there are still a handful left, by the way – started to question the efficacy of the extravagant amounts of money being spent during the Monterey Car Week years ago, but the overriding opinion always seems to err to the side of, “What happens if we’re not there?” Which is really too bad because when you’re out there the logos and brands might be different, but they start blending together after a while and the overall sameness of it all leaves one cold.
The very latest trend in auto buzz and excitement is to build “houses” or “image” palaces. Note I didn’t say showrooms because these structures aren’t there to sell cars but to sell brand image. Audi has doubled down on the concept over the last five years and now Cadillac is weighing in with its Cadillac House, which has already reached the pantheon of tedium personified. The problem with most of these “new” auto marketing endeavors, experiential or otherwise, is that save for a very few notable exceptions, it’s manufactured excitement. As in, it doesn’t ring true, from the grassroots enthusiasts all the way to the well-heeled swells.
Even the much-touted “Dream Cruise,” which takes place around these parts in August, began to wear a cloak of sameness several years ago that simply doesn’t ring true anymore. (With one lone exception: Last year, during the Dream Cruise, Dodge hosted an organic, 1/8th-mile drag racing event at the now-defunct Pontiac Silverdome called “Roadkill Nights” and it was a huge hit. But alas, that event has now been moved to a new location this year and made bigger, which means that the organic nature of the event has already been sanitized and pasteurized, with the “excitement” factor skewing to the manufactured side of the meter.)
The reason that excitement is so fleeting in this business is that everything is canned, predictable, repeated and decidedly inauthentic these days. It’s all been done before and even if something new manages to slip through the gauntlet of NIH (“Not Invented Here”) at these car companies it never seems to last, or worse, it gets swallowed up in the notion that the next event has to be bigger and better orchestrated and more polished, and by then it has already lost whatever was good about it in the first place.
Not all excitement has been purged from this business, thank goodness. There’s still a chance that a brilliant marketing idea, or an event, or advertisement, or social media hit will somehow slip through and strike the right chord, leaving a lasting, buzzworthy impact.
But those instances are few and far between these days, and I’m afraid we’ll just have to be on the lookout and relish them when they happen.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: Peter has been relentlessly hammering Sergio Marchionne almost since the day he arrived here after being gifted the assets of the Chrysler Corporation by the Obama administration. Peter has never wavered once from calling out Marchionne and his "espresso-swilling minions" as carpetbagging mercenaries out to make one last score. And with the latest news emanating from Auburn Hills, it seems that Peter was right all along. See some of Peter's most recent columns on Marchionne & Co. in this week's "On The Table". -WG