Auto Branding in Overdrive at German Show

Back From Lean Years, Audi, Other Euro Marketers Build Buzz With Experiential Blowout in Frankfurt

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While the prestigious Frankfurt Motor Show is often an exercise in automotive-branding extremes -- the show occurs only on alternate years, and it is , after all, in Germany -- this year's event redefines one-upmanship. For example: Why spend $14 million to erect a display at the massive show and tear it down after two months? Because, if you're Audi, you can.

Credit: Steve Williams

"Display" is too tame a noun to describe the standalone structure situated next to Hall 10: Called the Audi Ring, the company's exercise in overachievement is 330 feet long, 230 feet wide and 40 feet tall. It can hold more than 30 show cars.

But there's more: integrated into the Ring is a 1,300-foot test track that show visitors (Frankfurt attracts just less than a million during the 10-day affair) can use to explore the new Audis at speed, rather that admire them in a static environment. The Frankfurters don't actually pilot the new A8s and S7s and TT roadsters; Audi staffers chauffeur the public to avoid any potential … mishaps.

Unlike the nearby autobahn, there are speed limits on the track. Still, it's one unique way to build brand loyalty, differentiate each exhibitor from the competition, and create a sizable PR buzz among the thousands of international media who attend the two press days.

A Return to Form for Lavish Exhibition
"For all the investments we make, this becomes an experiential concept for our brand," said Volvo VP-Global Marketing Richard Monturo, waving his hand about his company's elegant wood-and-glass stand. "There are things we try out in exhibitions that inform our retail-to-customer experiences. Plus , there's the PR and advertising elements that come out of it."

Audi Ring at Frankfurt Motor Show
Audi Ring at Frankfurt Motor Show Credit: Phillippe Pauchet

Automobile enthusiasts are expected to ogle, queue and snap millions of digital photos at this year's show, where more than 900 exhibitors will ramp up new products. This year's event also marks a return to form for the every-other-year Frankfurt show, which was uncharacteristically low key in 2009 in the face of bankruptcies, bailouts and the resultant international economic turmoil. Even Cadillac and Chevrolet have returned to the show floor after bagging the 2009 event. General Motor's Opel division, Ford, Chrysler and Jeep are also here this year.

At Chevy's press event -- to introduce the new Malibu sedan to its European audience -- the theme was about opportunity and optimism, "and all the things the brand is known for in the United States, where we're serving the everyday heroes," said Wayne Brannon, president of Chevrolet Europe.

While Chevy's heritage was high on the list of the brand's accomplishment -- it is soon to celebrate its centennial -- Mr. Brannon said that the challenge is to grow brand awareness in Western Europe. "We've only got 4% or 5% awareness, and we need to leverage a whole lineup of cars," he said. "In Brazil, for example, we don't need to do that , we've been around for 86 years and we're the No. 2 or 3 brand in the market."

The strategy at Frankfurt supports the scenario established by GM's chief of global marketing, Joel Ewanick, who told Automobile News earlier this month, "By saying that Chevrolet and Cadillac are the global brands, brings discipline and focus to the organization. … It makes us aware of the pecking order of what we're trying to do." Mr. Ewanick in January hired Chris Perry to tailor Chevrolet's global marketing strategy.

In terms of drama, the Chevrolet stand was restrained compared to some of the German, the Italian and the French exhibits. "We spent about 25% of the big German brands here, and we're not trying to blow it over the top," Mr. Brannon said, declining to name a specific figure. "I wouldn't think of coming anywhere close to what Audi has spent." A similar sensibility applies at Volvo, the Swedish car company formerly owned by Ford and now controlled by the Chinese Geely brand. "We do a lot of economizing," said Mr. Monturo, which might seem to go against the overall goal at Volvo: to move upmarket.

Credit: Steve Williams

As part of its game plan, Volvo introduced its "Concept You," a super-high-tech idea that includes a futuristic control panel that can sense when the driver is looking at it. It's far from production-ready, but indicates that Volvo is stepping back from its auto safety equity and looking toward design and luxury to move more units.

To this end, the company is hot on the net and social media. "We think the primary device in auto marketing is the internet," said Mr. Monturo. "We have teams focusing on how we can upgrade the user experiences in all our social presences. We're using the 'designed around you' idea but trans-creating around the world."

One marketing tool that Volvo has used for decades and continues to promote to Americans is its European delivery program. Some other European makers employ similar schemes: allow statesiders to buy a new car at discount, deliver it to Volvo's home in Gothenberg or locations around Europe, then ship it back home when the vacation's over. Volvo's offer is particularly appealing in that it includes round-trip airfare for two to Sweden, plus a hotel for one night and a Swedish meatball lunch.

Helping Consumers Bond With the Brand
"This bonds people to the brand," said Mr. Monturo. "It gives you bragging rights when you get home and tell your friends, 'Hey, here's this car and the story I've attached to it.'"

The values that European drivers place on their car culture and heritage -- values that translate to sales -- come across beyond the extravagances of a show like Frankfurt. In the past few years three of Germany's premier brands -- Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW -- have opened elaborate museums near their respective werkes, or factories. All are rather spectacular architectural events in their own right, not to mention the stunning goods on display inside them.

And Volkswagen has created its own permanent showcase in Wolfsburg, where in 2000 it opened Autostradt, a kind of Disneyland for car lovers. Pavilions display all the VW Group's brand -- it's a kind of a Frankfurt auto show shrunk to size -- and there are two 200-foot tall glass towers, or silos, that hold new VWs for delivery to European buyers who choose to come to Autostadt rather than to their local dealers. While shopping for a car in the U.S. is often a chore, in Europe it's a family vacation.

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