Like it or not, your favourite automotive read is starting to look different, thanks to COVID-19. All manufacturer-hosted live launch events of new vehicles are on hold, either postponed indefinitely or just cancelled outright.
The story you should be reading now about driving a 2020 Range Rover Sport SVR on a frozen lake in Sweden? Cancelled. Driving the 2020 Porsche 911 Turbo on the Laguna Seca track in California? Cancelled. The long-anticipated Ford Bronco in Michigan? First drives of the Chevrolet Trailblazer and Cadillac CT4? Cancelled. Cancelled. Cancelled.
One exception is the global reveal of the 2021 Hyundai Elantra, which was scheduled for March 17 at The Lot Studios in West Hollywood. Originally, this was to be a glitzy affair with media being shown the new car by Hyundai executives, before driving the new Sonata Hybrid for the first time the next day. Instead, says Hyundai Canada spokesperson Jean-Francois Taylor, it became a live-streamed presentation, with executives in a room speaking to a virtual audience.
Better get used to it. Even small-scale live events are now cancelled, thanks to the travel they require to reach the venue.
“Porsche has taken the steps to reconsider all of its activities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of guests and everyone involved,” says Porsche Canada spokesperson Patrick Saint-Pierre. “As such, a moratorium has been placed on non-essential travels. Digital presentations will be held, wherever possible.”
It’s not just the potential danger of travel that’s affecting the way new cars can be promoted. Even press fleets of vehicles made available to automotive journalists are now being compromised. Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen will no longer provide their test vehicles to journalists, and others, including General Motors, are considering following this example.
“We believe this action will help to mitigate the risk and spread of COVID-19 in the community,” says Honda Canada spokesperson John Bordignon. “We are doing this in the interests of the journalists and their families that drive, test and enjoy our vehicles and for our employees and associates that manage and are in contact with the fleet on a daily basis.”
The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) sent a directive this week to its 100-plus members, advising them on the most sanitary procedures for collecting and returning cars. “At least we can go drive,” says president Stephanie Wallcraft. “After all, driving in its purest form is self-isolation. It’s still safe to be out on the roads.”
Nothing replaces actual time behind the wheel, she says. “There’s a lot that can’t be conveyed to journalists through virtual marketing, like touch points. How do they feel, how do the buttons snap, what’s the quality of the material? How spacious is it really? Because people should never trust what’s on the other side of a camera lens in that sense, unless they know they’re getting it from an objective source. Everything can be manipulated these days.”
The challenges in promotion will not affect the regular introduction of new vehicles, however – at least, not in the short term.
“You can’t really change the timeline for the release of a car,” says Taylor. “There’s a set date for when that car’s going to start getting built, when it comes to market, the selldown of the previous model, it getting replaced with this new model – the timeline’s all set. An automaker could only justify delaying the reveal at a launch for a couple of weeks. It doesn’t work for months. You can’t stop that train.”
Instead, manufacturers are trying to work around the challenge as best they can and keeping their cards close to their chest.
“It is too soon to quantify the impact of COVID-19 on our product PR plans for the year,” says FCA spokesperson LouAnn Gosselin. “While we are discussing contingency plans for every launch, nothing definitive can be scheduled at this time.”
Taylor, however, is optimistic. “Currently, what we’re thinking – and there’s no data to back this up, it’s based on a hunch, looking at the market – is that sure, we’re going to see a dip in March, April, May, however long this takes.
“You can delay it, but you do genuinely get to a point where you think, ‘I need a new car now.’ People may be able to put it off by a month or two months, but we are then expecting to see, at the end of the year, a bit of a spike that will actually compensate to a certain extent for the loss.
“Car buying is interesting – there are peculiarities to it. It’s not like toilet paper!”
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