Confidence Brims Among Players at North American Auto Show

From Audi to Honda, BMW, GM, Chrysler and More, Mood remains High for Launches, Marketing and Social Media

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Compared with the North American International Auto Shows of jut a few years ago, the 2012 version was a veritable festival of cheer and optimism, yet tempered by the industry caveat: "We haven't done nearly enough yet."

Sergio Marchionne
Sergio Marchionne

But the doom and gloom prognostications at the Detroit show in recent years haven't completely evaporated. Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, addressing the Automotive News World Congress, sounded mournful as he assessed the economic forces swirling worldwide, especially the ongoing crisis in Europe.

"The current situation does not favor a business like ours, an industry that requires thorough medium- and long-term planning and is highly sensitive to economic conditions," Mr. Marchionne said. "We hit a number of balls out of the park last year, so the string, we know, cannot be replicated. ... [So] in 2012 the marching orders for all of us are to keep our heads down, stay humble and keep on pushing." (There were also foul balls, most notably the much-criticized Jennifer Lopez spots for the Fiat 500.)

The industry's upbeat mood was fueled by 2011 sales of nearly 13 million cars and light trucks in the U.S., according to data from Automotive News. Also helping was a fleet of gorgeous cars at Detroit, including the Audi S4, the Honda Accord concept, Acura's stunning sports-car concept of the resurrected NSX and Ford's Fusion. The Fusion, which comes in gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid models, was named Best in Show by Autoweek.

The Japanese makers were emphatic that production, crippled by last year's disaster, is almost back to normal. General Motors Vice Chairman Steve Girsky was clear that the rollout of the Volt would continue in the U.S., as well as in Europe and China, despite the hybrid's hitting a curve in November when federal investigators found that the batteries in some caught fire after severe-crash testing.

For BMW North America, which premiered its redesigned bread-and-butter 3-series sedans in Detroit, the media message is pretty much a return to "the Ultimate Driving Machine" with a campaign from newly hired KBS&P, New York. KBS&P replaced Omnicom Group's GSD&M in Austin, Texas, which had handled the account for five years. BMW just edged Mercedes-Benz, 247,907 units to 245,190, as the top-selling premium luxury brand in the U.S. last year.

"Spending is at least a dollar more than last year, and we'll aim across a broad spectrum of target groups," said Dan Creed, BMW's chief marketing officer.

While the use of social media and digital seemed more on the minds of marketing executives and was the subject of an Automotive News panel, traditional formats predominate. The upcoming Super Bowl provided extensive fodder for discussion, as it has become the showcase for automotive creative. Although 30-second spots during the game are selling in excess of $3 million, longer ads for automakers are proliferating after Chrysler's high-profile two-minute spot, "Imported from Detroit," last year.

Chrysler CMO Olivier Francois said, however, that the tentative plan is to emphasize product rather than storytelling this year.

Joel Ewanick
Joel Ewanick

General Motors is developing a total of five spots for the game, while Volkswagen and Audi bought 60-second spots.

Joel Ewanick, GM's global chief marketing officer, said he's working to scope out the Super Bowl competition early so the company can outflank them.

"When we find who's got a hot commercial during the game, I guarantee you we're going to put our spots on top of it and ride that wave," Mr. Ewanick said.

An ongoing distraction is the resolution of GM's multibillion-dollar global agency review, set in motion last August. During an interview in Detroit, Mr. Ewanick said he hopes to conclude the extended process by the end of January.

"We need to find efficiencies in our overall marketing costs around the world," the executive said. "We spend too much money on paying fees and to develop the production of the ads. ... We're the last of the big advertisers to fix that . So we need to find the efficiencies but not compromise the creative. That's the key, but how do you do that ? That's why it's taking us a couple of extra weeks."

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