Auto Pilot
by Drew Neisser

You know you've been in marketing too long when you are disappointed by its absence. But that's exactly what happened at the recent New York Auto Show that rolled into town recently with much fanfare attracting well over a million New York area tire kickers. Sure there were several slick new cars worthy of a stationery test-drive and a few more that inspired drooling from behind the velvet ropes, but all in all it was a marketing flat tire.

With the notable exception of Camp Jeep, that drew 20,000 happy campers a day, engaging brand experiences were as rare as a 1928 Duesenberg. Rarer still were relationship-building data capture initiatives, despite the throngs of fanatical visitors eager to learn more. After a second visit, I couldn't help but wonder if when it came to the Auto Show show, the industry was simply on autopilot.

From my bucket-seat view, this show could have been marketing nirvana, where self-identified car enthusiasts come together to bond with carmakers in a love fest of pedal to the metal exhilaration. And maybe it all happened while I wasn't looking. Or, maybe these marketers were thoughtfully restrained in the face of the recent Yankelovich study that noted 65% of consumers surveyed felt constantly bombarded with too much marketing and advertising". Or maybe they felt that offering breathtakingly expensive glossy brochures was enough to form long-term relationships with car lovers. Or maybe it was so expensive just to bring in the cars to Javits Center that there was no money left for relationship building. Or maybe this is just how things have always been done at car shows.

So what's the big deal? It's a car show. They showed cars. Well, let's do the math. If the average metropolitan New Yorker buys only 10 cars over the course of their lifetime at an average cost per car of $20,000 (that's cheap, admittedly), that's a lifetime value per customer of some $200,000. Conservatively, this means that during the course of the show, at least $200,000,000,000 worth of car buying power walked the crowded Javits halls. Throw in the fact that car show attendees contain a high concentration of hard-core enthusiasts, you could easily double this amount in purchase influence wielded by this otherwise anonymous crew. Pardon my being cavalier and intrepid (while we're on fungible car names) but if that much buying power was walking around your business, don't you think you'd at least try to get a name or two for a follow-up conversation? Me thinks, yes.

But from the moment you walk into the show to buy your "cash only" ticket, a spirit of anonymity pervades. In the era of smart cards and smart cars, it is unfathomable that any consumer or trade show would not offer computer registration, making it easy for the exhibitors to follow up with interested consumers via email. Just think of the trees that could have been saved from the brochures that were needlessly distributed to casual passersby to end in bins outside the hall. Not to mention the lost opportunity to offer those who were interested far more cost-effective and customizable electronic brochures, like the cool ones you can get from www.scion.com. But let's for a moment assume the carmakers aren't wholly responsible for the show's techno-phobic approach, let's move on to their role in this fiasco of lost opportunity.

Like other New York car buyers, I walked the floor eager to be engaged and enlightened. Not looking for a hard sell, I just wanted a brand experience that would capture my attention and wink, "hey this car is for you because we know what you are all about." Instead I was pretty much ignored by all but the peppy photographer at the Dodge booth who was 100% prepared to take my picture in front of their race car. Unfortunately her camera was broken so she showed me how the system worked and how I would have been able to find my photo on their website using the code on the key card she couldn't give me because the system was down. At last, someone cared enough about my presence to drive me to their website. This was as good as it got.

The bottom line - this show was a freeway filled with lost opportunities. More than a million prospective customers and purchase influencers walked in and walked out with no one much the wiser. Thousands of glossy brochures found their way to the bottom of countless trash bins on New York street corners. And despite the fact that most consumers do feel over-marketed to, they remain interested in a fair exchange of value.

Provide them an engaging brand experience that recognizes and encourages their four-wheeled fantasies like Jeep did and they will gladly part with their time and contact information. Far from autopilot, this hands-on approach could drive long-term relationships from here to Saturn, Mercury and all the down to earth opportunities in-between.


Drew Neisser is the President & CEO of Renegade Marketing Group. Like a classic hand saw, Renegade Marketing has a distinctive knack for cutting through the baloney that impedes success. Renegade is a sanctuary for unconventional thinking, devoted to finding fresh approaches to age-old marketing problems.

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