Just beside the headlight, the logo with the curving, red-hot flame is unmistakable. Even amid all the chrome and gleam of the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto – an event that may as well carry the slogan, “toys for grown-ups” – a Hot Wheels car blown up to life-sized proportions is the stuff of childhood fantasy.
It is just one of the “concept cars,” those futuristic models not yet suited for the road that are rolled out at auto shows to build hype around a brand’s engineering prowess. And yet, the Hot Wheels Camaro at the General Motors Co. booth, the closest thing to a living toy on the showroom floor, is remarkably close to reality.
The Camaro also represents how concept vehicles overall have been brought down to earth. A rocky economic downturn forced car makers to face an unpleasant reality, and the vast marketing exercise that is the auto show reflects that fact. The recession saw automotive companies cut back drastically on their engineering efforts around show cars. The Detroit auto show, a leader in the industry, saw the number of concept vehicles on its floor plunge from 31 in 2008 to just 14 in 2009.
Now, they are slowly returning – there are 15 at this year’s Toronto show, which opens Friday. But they offer a design vision that is much closer to road-ready than their flashy predecessors.
“We gave some hints as to what the production car was going to look like,” said George Saratlic, product communications manager for GM Canada, gesturing to the black detailing on the car’s fascia, just below the front fender, and the air induction vents on its hood. Just a few minutes later when the new Camaro model is unveiled on GM’s stage with a sporty, come-hither roar, the design is not that far off. The road-ready model lacks some of the flashy extras, the nuclear-green finish with the metallic shine, and the limited-edition miniature toy version. But the overall look is similar.
It’s a cautious comeback for the concept vehicle, which has been humbled in recent years.
“Concepts are put out because you’re trying to build a vision for the future. And in ’07, ’08 ,’09, there was no future,” said auto analyst Dennis Desrosiers.
“Now, we’re starting to see a lot more concepts.”
That’s key for auto companies, says Judy Wheeler, director of marketing for Nissan Canada Inc., because these show vehicles are crucial to building marketing buzz.
“In ’09, everybody cut their concept cars way back,” she said. “Now, everybody’s business model is getting a little better, they’re working it back in.
“We need it to make the public aware of our brand … it’s important.”
A report from Bank of Montreal this week predicted better sales in the sector this year. In January, auto sales were up 15 per cent in Canada and 11 per cent in the U.S., despite continuing economic uncertainty. After a cautious period when many consumers held tighter to their budgets and put off buying a new car, the report suggested there could be some pent-up demand in the industry.
“It’s going to be a big year. There’s going to be a lot of activity in Canada – it’s never been more competitive than now,” Ms. Wheeler said.
And auto makers are taking to the Toronto show floor with an eye to advertising to those prospective car buyers.
“The buyers are sort of coming back … If we can excite them to our brand, then we’ve accomplished a lot,” said Christine Hollander, communications manager with Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd.
The designers behind concept cars do not seem to have their heads in the clouds the way they did before the recession.
“A long time ago, they were really out there, in terms of design,” Ms. Hollander said. She points to the Ford stage, where two new Fusion models sit under powder-blue sheets waiting to be unveiled. Their design hews very closely to the Evos concept car that toured auto shows in 2011, she says.
“We make it closer to reality so that consumers can see it … We look at the public reaction.”
The downturn really marked a move toward concept cars that gauged public opinion, as opposed to presenting an off-the-wall, Jetsons-like vision of the future, said GM’s Mr. Saratlic.
The slow return of concept vehicles is just one piece of a marketing mix in the automotive segment that is coming back to life. The biggest advertising event of the year in the U.S. was a case in point: the Super Bowl broadcast, which commands millions for a 30-second commercial, saw healthy spending from auto makers, who bought up a third of the advertising.
“I’m noticing most of the auto makers coming back into the marketplace,” said Aldo Cundari, chief executive of Toronto-based agency Cundari.
Immediacy is not the thing any more. It's all about how you build a brand in the marketplace ... Why concept cars are coming back, is that they set that vision forward."
That’s a marked difference to the depths of the downturn, when advertising dollars were tight and automotive companies were struggling. In January 2009, observers saw it as symbolic when General Motors thinned out its GM Heritage division, sending roughly 200 historic vehicles to auction – many of those prototypes and concept vehicles. The prices they fetched highlighted not only their value to car enthusiasts but also the care in design and investment that creates one-of-a-kind vehicles.
A concept car known as the Buick Blackhawk sold for $522,500 (U.S.) at the auction.
New concept cars continue to be essential pieces of marketing.
Every car maker realizes the importance of the auto show as an advertising tool, says John Vernile, vice-president of marketing for Hyundai Auto Canada Corp. The company has built concept cars, as well as a brand-new exhibit to emphasize a change in its marketing approach this year, which is attempting to put the focus on Hyundai’s engineering and technology.
“We’ve started from scratch and taken a whole new look and feel to demonstrate our new brand positioning,” Mr. Vernile said. “We spent a lot of time, and it was a sizable investment, to create this new exhibit.”
Roughly 40 per cent of the price of a vehicle paid by a consumer can be accounted for in marketing dollars, analyst Mr. Desrosiers said. The auto shows, where free word-of-mouth and media coverage abound, are invaluable.
“It’s all about getting the press auto enthusiasts turned on. And they turn on the consumer auto enthusiasts, and the consumer auto enthusiasts turn on the mass market,” he said. "Pretty important."