As big reveals go, Infiniti's unveiling of its electric concept vehicle at this year's North American International Auto Show did not go swimmingly.
The stage had been set by a troika of Infiniti executives who stood on a large, empty dias before a massive screen, talked up the company’s history at the show, and prepared the large crowd of journalists and industry observers for the rollout of the QX Inspiration.
Christian Meunier, president and chair of Infiniti, reminded attendees that Infiniti was itself revealed as a brand at the event, known colloquially as the Detroit auto show, 30 years ago. Alfonso Albaisa, SVP of global design, then reviewed highlights of the brand over three decades and talked about how he had once snuck into an Infiniti reveal. Finally, Karim Habib, executive design director, came on stage to introduce the QX Inspiration.
As he spoke, the car was supposed to roll onto the stage. It didn’t.
The sleek white vehicle, sitting behind the curtains, refused to start. Engineers worked valiantly while Habib played for time, but with no success. The car reportedly had been damaged in transit.
Infiniti’s fail could be seen as representative of the state of the Detroit show, the efficacy of which has been questioned in recent years. Mass-market business media such as Forbes and automotive-focused outlets like Jalopnik have questioned whether the show is still relevant.
The questions gathered steam last year when Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi all passed on the event. The loss of those brands had an effect, though how much of an effect depends who you ask. Among the most negative, Yahoo News proclaimed that this year’s show as a "shadow of its former self."
However, Amanda Niswonger, PR and social media manager for the North American International Auto Show and an agency staffer at Lambert, feels differently, describing the hit from the absence of the three German automakers as minimal, though 500 fewer reporters attended.
"The biggest hit was the international media," she says, adding that many international brands, will fly in journalists to attend their events. "The press events were still packed."
There’s plenty of speculation as to why the show has lost its luster, with the big theory being timing: the show is held in chilly January -- in Michigan. It has been open to the press this week, and the public gets access starting on Saturday. The show also takes place on the heels of the Consumer Electronics Show, which takes place in Las Vegas each January.
It’s notable that Mercedes, BMW, and Audi all had a presence at CES this year, as did Infiniti parent company Nissan, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota, as well as other automotive companies. Indeed, motorheads do "blame CES for the ‘death’ of Detroit's North American International Auto Show," according to Motor Trend.
In response, the show is being moved to June next year, with the organizers hoping better timing and milder weather will spur brands that skipped the show this year to change their minds in 2020.
Another theory is that large auto shows aren’t as vital as they once were, due in part to the rise of platforms such as social media.
The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in between.
The auto show, unlike other major trade shows, is more or less a direct marketing event. Consumers cannot attend CES, but the last week of the two-week Detroit auto show is open to the public. If the timing of the show, or the location doesn’t align with the needs of the manufacturer, then it may not attend.
That was part of the reason Mercedes took a pass this year, according to Robert Moran, director of corporate communications for Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. "[Not attending] Detroit is an example of Mercedes continually making adjustments to make sure our activations align with our product cadence and timelines," he says.
While some German brands are taking a pass, other manufacturers are using the show to make announcements. Ford, for example, is revealing major updates to the Ford Explorer SUV and a new Mustang model. It also disclosed an alliance with Volkswagen. All three announcements received significant media attention.
Mark Truby, VP of global communications at Ford says the automaker used the auto show as an opportunity for a major experiential activation, holding the event at Ford Field, the home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The company is also conducting a week-long-plus activation at Michigan Central Station.
"It will be a digital project," he says, "where every night for 10 days during the actual public days of show we’ll be telling the story of Ford...and our vision. We’re turning the facade of the train station into a giant visual screen."
Truby acknowledges that the role of Detroit, and auto shows in general, has changed.
"Auto shows in general as a place to introduce new products? Yes, I think that role is certainly diminished," he says. "We are certainly placing more value on creating standalone events that are not competing with other events for the share of voice and attention."
That doesn’t mean the Detroit auto show is dead, at least not to Ford. Truby wrote about the importance of the event to both Ford and the city of Detroit in an op-ed in PRWeek last year.
Even the Infiniti fiasco demonstrates that auto shows have a place in the new communications world. The car eventually made it on-stage for its presentation to the press, executives answered questions, and the vehicle won three of the five top design awards, including best overall concept.
The brand even managed to use the show as an opportunity to present itself and spin the vehicle’s tardiness in a tweet, saying, "The Infiniti QX Inspiration, like many stunning beauties, is a bit of a diva and decided to delay her debut during the press conference."