Are Auto Shows Worthwhile?

Marketers Should Run Show Booths Like an NBA Zone Defense, Says Wunderman's Bryce Whitwam in Shanghai

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Models at car shows create disruption from armies of amateur paparazzi
Models at car shows create disruption from armies of amateur paparazzi Credit: Bryce Whitwam
GUANGZHOU ( -- Once again, the annual Guangzhou International Motor Show was a spectacular event with several new car launches and presentations by ever-stronger local players.

Cars represent a strong aspirational value in Chinese society and auto shows provide more entertainment value than any other kind of trade show. Also, let's face it, there's no better event that truly demonstrates the power of today's Chinese consumer like an auto show. An event of this scale was unthinkable when I arrived in China over 20 years ago.

There was a lot riding on the success of this year's auto show held late last month, however, because car sales growth in China has started to drop recently for the first time in years, particularly for premium-priced models. The problem for automakers in China isn't that consumers can't afford them, as is the case in other markets.

It's simply that Chinese consumers are playing a cautious waiting game on the outcome of the global economic downturn before making such a large investment.

With lower sales expectations and the possibility of the reduction of budgets going into 2009, it is vital that the auto manufacturers maximize their marketing budgets at every level.

Before I arrived in Guangzhou, I was expecting to see more aggressive sales people, stronger customer lead acquisition programs and smarter exhibition layouts designed not only to impress but also to sell.

Much to my surprise, very little had changed from previous shows, and it seemed to me that many auto manufacturers are still not properly maximizing their investment.

For starters, sales personnel seem primarily focused on the "hot leads" or those consumers who are looking to buy in the next six weeks and are shopping the show to narrow their choices.

When I asked a salesman at a premium car booth how he knew a hot lead, he told me that you could tell by the questions the potential customer asks. I confirmed this response at other booths. It's no wonder that many of the sales personnel stand around and wait to be engaged instead of questioning potential customers themselves.

The vast majority of potential customers at auto shows can be classified as "warm leads" or those who are considering purchasing a new car within the next year. These people are valuable -- but largely ignored.

Very few companies in Guangzhou ran lead acquisition programs. Contests, inexpensive souvenirs, car club memberships, games and lucky draws are all easy and simple ways to acquire consumer data. Links to key auto nameplate blogging and BBS sites would also build a larger community and create frequent and ongoing conversations with these potential targets.
Car companies like Geely overuse models
Car companies like Geely overuse models Credit: Bryce Whitwam
Effective auto show booth floors should also be run like an NBA-style zone defense. Put your key sales guys in zones around a cluster of cars (or single units if you're a smaller player), assign promoters or junior sales people to each car to explain key details and support them with another level of promoters assigned to collect information.

Here's another interesting discovery: The booths with fewer female promoters (i.e. scantily-clad fashion models) got more consumers to engage in the cars and thus made it easier for the salesmen to their jobs.

I'm not advocating getting rid of the girls entirely, but smart car marketers hire fewer of them and keep them placed on the raised platform promoting the key launch or concept car that the company want everyone to notice.

At floor level, these attractive ladies simply create disruption from the armies of amateur paparazzi hoping to snap as many photos as possible. In the end, you wonder sometimes if the show is about the girls or the cars.

Auto shows will continue to attract huge and attentive crowds. But they could easily be run more efficiently by expanding lead acquisition activities that will draw more sales opportunities.

Gone is the day in China when it was easy to make a sale. Today, we have to work harder to maximize our marketing investment at every opportunity.

Bryce Whitwam is the general manager of Wunderman in Shanghai.

The Guangzhou Auto Show in Nov. 2008
The Guangzhou Auto Show in Nov. 2008 Credit: Bryce Whitwam
The Guangzhou Auto Show in Nov. 2008
The Guangzhou Auto Show in Nov. 2008 Credit: Bryce Whitwam

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