Photo credit: Dustin Walsh
DETROIT — Forty feet above the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles display at the Detroit auto show rests more than 40 miles of cable and nearly a dozen servers. The hardware powers 10,000 square feet of video surface and 30 million LED pixels as six programmers operate a multimillion-dollar control room to make the display come to life.
George P. Johnson Co., one of several display designers, was tasked with making the FCA show floor memorable — not only to entertain attendees for public and media show days, but to make the direct pitch that those attendees’ next car purchase should be an FCA brand.
“This (display) is built to sell,” Bo Puffer, manager of shows and events for FCA’s 71 auto show appearances, said at the auto show last week. “I’m here to sell cars, and the longer someone spends in my space, the less they are with someone else.”
The contractor team GPJ enlisted to erect the display and its interactive guts also regularly works on the Super Bowl halftime show and the Oscars, said Paul Hemsworth, vice president and executive creative director for GPJ.
The auto show, known as Southeast Michigan’s Super Bowl, is not only a spectacle that draws more than 800,000 attendees, it’s big business.
Other local companies that work in that specialty include Czarnowski Display Service Inc., which designed the General Motors display and others, and EWI Worldwide Inc., which produced the Ford Motor Co. exhibit and others.
Automakers spend as much as $300 million in a given year on displays in hopes of luring attendees to their dealerships when they leave Cobo Center.
According to Rochester-based marketing research firm Foresight Research Inc., 71 percent of attendees for the world’s auto shows were expected to buy or lease a new car within 12 months of attending last year.
For automakers and dealers, that’s more than 568,000 potential car buyers set to walk by their displays this week, which translates to billions of dollars up for grabs.
Sam Slaughter, president of Sellers Auto Group Inc. in suburban Detroit, said auto shows play an important role in introducing customers to new products.
“NAIAS absolutely leads to a boost in sales for us,” Sellers said. “The show really adds to the hype of cars here in Detroit, and you’ve got to have an eye-catching display to get people’s attention and get them into the cars.”
Sellers operates Sellers Buick GMC in Farmington Hills, John Bowman Chevrolet and Sellers Bowman Auto Center in Clarkston, as well as Sellers Bowman Subaru in Macomb Township.
For FCA and its brands, executives want to promote brand unity while attracting customers. FCA assigned GPJ the task of making a concept called “Gears” a reality.
Pillars and rings
GPJ created video-wrapped pillars for each FCA brand — Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Fiat and Alfa Romeo — that display 40 minutes of logos and other brand content. The pillars are connected with 18 LED-lined rings, or gears, linking the six brands into one overall theme, Puffer said.
“We sell several brands, but we’re one company,” Puffer said. “We wanted to find a way to showcase that in this space in a big way.”
Rounding out the hour-long program is a 20-minute video and light show called the “Super Storm.” During the storm, the lights go down, music erupts and the 38 screens on the floor begin a choreographed sequence, more akin to a Las Vegas spectacular than an auto show.
“(The FCA display) is a combination of architecture and live entertainment and marketing media working together,” Hemsworth said. “It’s important to create an interactive environment, something that’s not static, and bring synchronicity to FCA at the show.”
The large metallic rings that simulate gears during the show were built in Europe and flown to Detroit in the cargo holds of seven 747s. The display required more than 100 semis to deliver it to Cobo.
GPJ designed other automaker displays at NAIAS, including those for Nissan, Infiniti, Acura, Honda, Toyota, Scion and Lexus. Outside of NAIAS, it works with Maserati, Tesla and Volkswagen.
EWI wasn’t available to discuss bells and whistles of the displays pitching Ford products, but interactivity remained a strong element in many displays, including Ford’s.
At Ford, attendees can enter an F-150 that rises almost two stories above the show floor to showcase how a trailer responds to its Pro Trailer Backup Assist system as well as a virtual ride in an Explorer through scenic roads in America.
“There are more interactive things this year than ever before,” said Slaughter, also a co-chairman of 2016 NAIAS. “Attendees love the interaction and it gives them an experience they’re not going to get anywhere else.”
However, elaborate displays play only a small role in car buying decisions, said Nancy Walter, vice president of business development for Foresight Research.
For potential buyers, the equation to car sales is much simpler. The ability for show attendees to sit in the vehicle is the most influential aspect of the auto show to car buyers, according to Foresight.
“For (automaker) customers we work with, we’ve been known to march up to their stands and tell them to unlock the cars,” Walter said. “That’s what they’re here for. They want to shop.”
But the displays are playing a more important role as the Millennial generation continues to grow as car buyers, Walter said.
Millennials — those born between 1980 and the early 2000s — fell from nearly a third of car buyers in 2009 to just 10 percent of buyers in 2013 because the recession hit the younger generations harder, Walter said.
But that’s changing.
“Millennials came back (to dealerships) in a big way last year,” Walter said. “They’ve reshaped things and made experiential more important … they want to be in places like motorsports, auto shows and events.”
Roughly 70 percent of the brand displays are new at this year’s show, with many implementing more technology to engage attendees, Hemsworth said ahead of the show in December.
“Everyone (clients) has different requirements and budgets, but what they all want is to create an intimate level of interaction with the nearly million visitors at the show,” Hemsworth said. “Technology has been a big aid in meeting those demands and creating something that goes beyond brand awareness to something experiential for the show attendees.”
Where: Cobo Center
When: Today through Saturday, Jan. 23, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (no admittance after 9 p.m.);
Sunday, Jan. 24, 9 a.m -7 p.m. (no admittance after 6 p.m.)
Adults: $13 per person
Seniors: $7 (65 and older)
Children: $7 (7-12 years old; 6 and under free with a parent or guardian)
For FCA, that means an over-the-top display that can keep the attention span of a generation inundated with over-the-top technology.
“While the latest technology appeals to all ages, we do think the new interactive display will be appealing to young consumers,” Puffer said. “The combination of very cool graphics, upbeat music and a dynamic light display should attract the more connected customer.”
You can reach Dustin Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.