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Jim gives his observations from the NY Auto Show. Is the industry advancing, or is it all just marketing bling?

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Episode #150! Thanks to everyone that has read the blog and listened to the podcast over the years.

It seems things have come full circle… In Episode #1 of the Hopkinson Report podcast, I compared the iPhone to a Porsche, and asked, “Has the iPhone reached ‘no substitute’ status?”

Well, the iPhone is still going strong, with Apple on track to make $100 billion dollars in 2011. It sold 18.65 million iPhones in the quarter, an eye-popping 113 percent increase over last year, destroying Wall Street’s consensus estimate of 16.6 million units.

As for Porsche, I get to them a little later.

When I talk about marketing cars, I think the interesting thing is that companies have to market them all the time. A user might buy a car only once every 3, 5, or even 10 years, so car companies have to be building this brand and trust constantly.

Let me give you a personal example. My aging parents were looking for a car to replace their aging 1999 Toyota Camry. Since I love cars, love research, and love negotiating, I was excited at the challenge. I narrowed it down to four basic car companies that they would lease: Toyota, Honda, Ford, Hyundai.

The truth is, I knew I really couldn’t go wrong, as all the cars were virtually identical when it came to price, options, features, and gas mileage.

Here was what I decided on:
Toyota Camry – Looked solid all around, but in the end I had limited time and didn’t even get to test drive the Camry. While others might have said, “I love the Camry, let me just upgrade models from 1999 to 2011,” in our case it was kind of the opposite. We felt that going from one Camry to the next was kind of boring. Why not mix it up a bit.

Honda Accord – Speaking of boring, you can’t get more safe than the Accord. This isn’t a bad thing… it’s a safe bet, very reliable, and has been around for decades. But since this was a lease, I was a little less concerned about resale value. In the end, I steered away from the Accord because I didn’t like the experience in the showroom with the sales reps, and it was more expensive.

Ford Fusion – To their credit, a strong marketing presence in the past few years was enough just to get Ford into the Final Four. I’m not sure I would have considered this car a few years ago. A strong effort, but not quite enough.

Hyundai Sonata – In the end it was the Hyundai Sonata that did just enough of the little things right to put it over the top in this competitive battle.
– First, the experience was good. The dealership was professional without playing any “let me talk to my manager” bull**** and the sales rep was very straightforward.
– Next was styling. To me, the car just looked much more stylish. Like a brand new 2011 look and feel, as opposed to a continually updated model each year.
– The interior was solid and had a great feel
– It had a better base engine… 190hp vs 169, 177, and 175 with the others.
– The negotiated price was right

But enough about the stats, what about the marketing?

When I looked back at my blog and podcast, I had talked about Hyundai in episode 23, 28, 52 (coverage of the 2009 Auto Show), 91, and 140.

That’s five times over 3 years, some good, some bad, but they were top of mind. You know what?

That’s true marketing. Earned marketing. Multiple mediums. Lots of trust built and money spent.

But I’m a little worried about the auto industry going for the quick fix.
When it’s fake, you can see right through it.

Here are 7 examples of what could be too much marketing bling:
(summary below… listen to the podcast for full descriptions)

1) Bling Car
See the photo at the top of the post. This car was made purely for bling value and to bring attention to it, so that’s transparent at least.

2) Spokespeople
The uber coiffed and professional models strutted around the cars like Vanna White crack me up. I can’t tell if this is a good gig for them (just one speech to memorize) or a bad gig (they’d rather be acting).

But I do know one thing… when the Dodge spokeswoman was talking about “Adaptive Cruise Control with forward collision warning,” she literally said “…so you don’t have to worry about any forward collisions.”

Really? I don’t have to worry about accidents? Is that a little bit of hyperbole? Just a bit?

3) Detroit
I’ve talked about this before… I’m rooting for Detroit. I really am. Check out this fascinating article in GQ titled “Destroying Detroit (in Order to Save It).”
But the Chrysler 200 – the one Eminem drove in the Super Bowl ad… it’s not quite there yet.

4) Audi on Checks In
Audi had a Foursquare check-in. They were trying, but I’m not sure it was the right audience for this.

5) iPads
Several car companies tried to integrate the hottest tech gadget for the show, mostly with success.
Porsche used iPads for data collection, taking my name and address in order to send me more information. It was fast and efficient.
BMW used iPads to actually display data about their cars. A step up from just a standard piece of paper listing options, but maybe a bit of overkill.
Hyundai‘s Equus model comes with an iPad for the user manual in the glove box. Again, maybe a little bit of overkill and trying to capitalize on the iPad’s buzz — why not just say “Buy an Equus, get a free iPad — but when they start to add other little things like the ability to schedule service appointments, they’re getting there.

6) Prove you were here
This was a promotion Chevy did, where users could get their picture taken in a car, then upload it to Facebook or other social media sites. I liked the idea because it works in this environment… it’s fun, gets people sitting in the cars, and has a viral element.

7) Electric Car test driving in the basement of the convention center
This was a little strange to me. Of course I believe electric cars are eventually going to be our future, but it was a little bit of a circus atmosphere to have people in line waiting to drive one.

But I understand it because in the same way that car companies have to spend years introducing a brand, it could take decades to really win over the public and prove to old-timers (like me) that it’s time to change to a hybrid or electric car. Cars will continue to evolve as they become more like computers, but it might take some time.

As for Porsche? They had a great little social media case study.

It went like this:
– Porsche was the first car company to get to 1 million fans on Facebook
– They created a custom 911 saying thank you, with 28,000 names on it
– Fans could search for their name on a microsite
– They made a “making of” video of the process

Are we at the point where liking a car brand is worth it for them to put your name on an actual car? Well, I thought it was a very interesting program, a good test for them, and you know those 28,000 fans — probably the most loyal followers they have — are going to spread the word all over Facebook.

But what if Porsche offered to give me the Facebook-branded car because I was such a big fan. Would I accept it? Aahhh, I don’t know. It might be a bit too blingy for me.

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