Storytelling drives air of optimism in Detroit

Marketing and communications is all about storytelling and nowhere is this more true than at the Detroit auto show, where 50 different reveals vie for attention over a packed two days of furious activity.

Marketing and communications is all about storytelling and nowhere is this more true than at the Detroit auto show, where 50 different reveals vie for attention over a packed two days of furious activity.

As previously discussed, the Detroit show has reinforced its status as the world's preeminent auto event and manufacturers place due prominence to the launches and strategies on display on the COBO Center floor in January. Automakers adopt a myriad of different tactics to stand out from the crowd and I was lucky enough to see many of them in action over the past couple of days.

Ford adopted a big, bold, confident approach in co-opting the adjoining Joe Louis Arena for its early Monday morning presentation, the scale of which allowed more people to attend than would be possible on the main show floor and allowed more vehicles in the vast space. Hyperbole from CEO Alan Mulally and other key execs was kept to a minimum – Ford let the impressive background graphics and new F-150 aluminum pickup truck speak for itself.

Afterwards, there was the usual media scrum for access to Mulally and Co, with some bloggers even giving the in-demand CEO the rock star treatment by asking for autographs and posing with him for pictures. Ford also annexed a separate space for further sessions throughout the day to open up more access to the automaker's senior team.

One theme emphasized by most automakers was their commitment to manufacturing in the US, with locations and factories proudly trumpeted in presentations. For example, GMC manufactured its new midsize truck in St Louis; Mercedes-Benz is building US supplies of its new C-class at its plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; the new BMW 320i model was developed in Washington state; and Volkswagen is investing $7 billion in North American production.

Of course, the auto industry is truly global and no doubt local production and manufacturing is also highlighted in Asia and Europe when the global auto road show hits those regions. One also wonders how much of the US-based work is true manufacturing and how much is just assembling. Either way, it is definitely one of the influences on car-buyers' purchasing decisions that forms part of the marketers' story arcs.

As Michael Bay demonstrated at CES for Samsung last week, putting on a perfect product reveal is by no means a given. But the formats and presentations that I saw in Detroit were for the most part super tight, with all Teleprompters in full working order and senior executives well-rehearsed and on message. That in itself is a tribute to the marketing and communications teams supporting their CEOs and senior execs.

In terms of style, the presentations pretty much mirrored the image of the brands, though perhaps having Kelly Rowland appearing live was a little bit of a surprise during the Mercedes-Benz reveal. Senior execs also played on the traditional reputation for the Germans to be lacking in the sense of humor department, posting on screen an old black and white pic of its white-coated engineering department as a symbol of the traditional view of the Teutonic automaker.

Volkswagen took an interesting approach by extending the trend toward branded content across its show presentation, basing it on a news-style show with a presenter that featured a live interview from one of its US plants and a video segment from its German base in Wolfsburg with its head of R&D, who then appeared live in person on the showroom floor.

It also flagged up interesting, "cool" facts such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's love for his GTI, stories of VW cars on the road that have clocked up incredibly high mileages – almost 400,000 in one case – and an impromptu "Californian-style" live musical accompaniment to the reveal of its Beetle Dune concept car.

Some automakers chose to profile a few different models; others, such as Hyundai and Cadillac went all-in on one new model: the luxury Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 Genesis and ATS Coupe respectively. Cadillac also leveraged its cool brand image with a version of the old blues tune Brand New Cadillac - popularized by The Clash in the late ‘70s – as a soundtrack to open its reveal. It also unveiled a new version of its iconic crest.

Overall, there was definitely a mood of optimism in the air. Subaru posted its fifth consecutive year of sales records; Cadillac boasted 66% growth in China; in fact, almost everyone seemed to find stats to shout about, which hasn't always been the case in recent years at the Detroit show.

As the auto road show press corps prepared to move on to the next stop on its global tour, the words of Hyundai Motor America's newly installed CEO, Dave Zuchowski, seemed appropriate: "The auto industry is back with a bang in 2014," he proclaimed, adding that his plants are at full capacity and that the South Korean manufacturer has just posted its best sales in 29 years in the US.

That's a narrative the auto sector's communications and marketing folks will be happy to propagate as they draw a line under Detroit for another year and prepare to tell the next chapters in their brand stories.

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