Brand New Worlds
How a brand is perceived at the Frankfurt Motor Show is not entirely a matter of the cars themselves, but also about how they represent themselves.
What’s in a brand? In this age of automobiles speaking increasingly less for themselves, thanks to ever diminishing differentiation of engineering and packaging, even more of the talking needs to be done through devices other than the actual product.
For this reason, it’s now more interesting than ever to compare and contrast how each marque attempts to put its stamp on this year’s Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, both on a large scale and through small details.
Obviously, the megalomania of the past decade or so that defined the German brands’ presence at the IAA would appear completely out of touch with the Zeitgeist anno 2017. Which is why most brands, and one of them in particular, have decided to go for a slightly more humble approach this time.
Above all marques, it is Audi who most obviously needs either to atone for past sins or have a healthy helping of humble pie. Gone is the enormous, standalone tent structure that had set the Four Rings of Ingolstadt apart from the competition for a good decade. Gone too is any remaining sense of space or airiness (hardly the tent’s forte, either). Instead, one is presented with a dark, gloomy ambience that could best be described as a light installation tribute to the Les Bains Douche nightclub, courtesy of Daft Punk. Which, though hardly pleasant, would at least be conceptually consistent, if there wasn’t some hipster’s bar with ubiquitous greenery to be found at one of its corners. A spot for craft beer and home made lavender lemonade (figuratively speaking) amid the technoid barrenness? Yeah, right.
The lack of consistency suggests that the stand may well have been signed off before Audi became fully immersed in the diesel scandal. But even without that completely inappropriate bar, it remains among the most unpleasant spaces at the IAA.
The rest of the VAG brands fare somewhat better, be they Seat with their urban/hipster/brick wall Barcelona style stall or Bentley’s slightly tired, but glitzy wood ’n chrome pavilion. Only the core brand must be described as being below target, what with its clinical lighting and utterly forgettable architecture. Mind you, it’s a rather fitting environment for the unimpressive range of cars that were brought along to Frankfurt, so it could be considered perfectly on-brand in this regard.
Despite being at least equally as troubled a brand, Opel’s IAA presence appeared to be considerably more assured. Admittedly, neither the shrubbery, nor the exposed brickwork were unique to the Hessian’s (conspicuously vast) stall. But this hipster vibe seemed to be in tune with a brand proclaiming that ‘the future’s for everybody’ and which, if rumours are to be believed, was at some point intended to be turned into a purveyor of purely electric motoring by former CEO, Karl-Thomas Neumann.
The drive and ideas of Neumann and his marketing director, Tina Müller (who recently also left from Rüsselsheim), were still within grasp at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It shall be interesting to see how their respective successors intend to position the troubled Opel brand.
In stark contrast, the messages broadcast by the two German ‘premium’ brands were decidedly mixed. And plentiful. For BMW is not just BMW anymore, just as Mercedes-Benz is much more than just dusty old Der Daimler.
Mercedes-Benz’ presence at the Festhalle has always been a unique arrangement among all the brands at any IAA. The historical event hall always set the Swabians apart from the rest, who have to make do with regular halls instead.
Employing a remotely Guggenheim Museum (the Frank Lloyd Wright one) arrangement of a spiral encircling a vast atrium, the Mercedes-Benz hall naturally facilitates a sense of space and grandeur that’s without equal. In that regard, it’s the perfect representation of The World’s Best Carmaker.
But, as hinted above, Mercedes-Benz ain’t just Merc anymore. Which is why the spiral leads across various themed exhibitions and installations, which range from the mundane (oodles of unimpressive SUVs) to the bizarre (a white Landaulette Maybached Mercedes G-class), from the odd (a sizeable partition devoted to the X-class pick-up) to the inevitable (electric cars). And as if that cacophony of models and sub-brands wasn’t enough, there’s also a very German attempt at a Silicon Valley-like think tank, fully with brainstorming pods, handwritten slogans and, of course, greenery. Which is as convincing as the wannabe-Silicon Valley attire Daimler CEO, Dieter Zetsche, and his chief designer, Gorden Wagener have recently felt obliged to wear on official occasions. In both cases, the effect is similar to that of the natural science teacher (vainly) trying to be down with the kids by dressing casually. It’s just not very convincing.
No think tanks, but also greenery is to be found at the bar on the Festhalle’s ground level, where Mercedes offered catering of excellent quality. Incidentally, this turns out to be where the three-pointed star’s ‘The Best or Nothing’ mantra obviously possessed more than face value.
Albeit not quite as pretentiously ambitious as Mercedes-Benz, the Swabians’ Bavarian counterparts have found themselves trapped in the same net of brand diversification and confusion.
Despite Rolls-Royce not officially being in attendance at the 2017 IAA, BMW’s Halle 11 didn’t want for brands at all. There were, of course, the core BMW offerings on display, which these days mainly appear to consist of endless SUVs, almost as many 3 series derivatives and the odd embarrassing 2 series Active Tourer. Then there’s the M brand, which had the new M5 saloon to show. But then there’s also M Performance (M on the cheap, if you will), the i range of electric cars - now supplemented by an i Performance label -, the odd mention of ‘Efficient Dynamics’ and, acting both as coup de grâce of sorts and IAA premiere, ‘Bayerische Motorenwerke’.
Bayerische Motorenwerke above all comes across as a desperate attempt at mimicking Mercedes’ success with the S-class range of saloon, coupé and convertible models. And while the fact that someone at Munich’s Petuelring recognised that a 7 series driver might not be all that delighted by the fact that he’s associated with the same brand as the janitor owning a 2 series van with plastic hubcaps, the whole concept of tearing the BMW brand into ever smaller pieces doesn’t come across as a solution that’s got particularly long legs. Unless the Bavarians eventually turn Bayerische Motorenwerke into an actual Lexus-like sub-brand with an altogether different corporate ID, which seems unlikely.
Mind you, apart from visually representing the travails of keeping a massively growing brand with an increasingly opaque image in check, Halle 11 was far from an unpleasant environment. The small test track at its centre possesses some charm, but more importantly, there’s some space for the cars to be appreciated (if one chooses to do so, of course).
Even the corner devoted to Bayerische Motorenwerke exudes some genuine class. But that’s to be expected, for it appears to be a superficially redecorated iteration of Rolls-Royce’s former stall. Almost as comely though is BMW’s lounge, which benefitted greatly from wonderfully moody prints of the company’s Vierzylinder headquarters on the walls. These photographic architectural depictions, lacking the presence of any automobile, are the kind of heritage that's worth more than a thousand sub-brands. Which amounts to an awkward reminder of the where the heart of the Bayerische Motorenwerke AG really lies.
Rather than hide them away in some corner, Ford have chosen to prominently employ photographs to drive their message home. In this instance, the message is that Europe is (also) Ford’s home, hence the giant faces of Ford (of Europe) employees adorning the pillars of Ford’s IAA presence. However, whether this concept is the result of the impression that Ford may be selling cars in Europe, but isn’t really developing cars for Europe anymore, remains unclear. Particularly as, despite proud Ford workers’ acting as emphatic commitment to the Old Continent, the rest of the IAA stall appeared rather careless. The lighting certainly was very unflattering and cold (albeit not literally so) and the cars themselves weren’t presented in a way that could be described as ‘show stopping’ at all. Only the duo of a Ford GT & GT40 made of Lego truly caught the eye. If any Vignale cars were on show, they must have been very diligently camouflaged.
Despite boasting no direct European connection (nor much in the way of heritage or history), the most assured and impressive of all stalls at the IAA was to be found at Lexus. Just as the cars’ styling can appear paradoxical and irritating, the stall and particularly the lounge are nothing other than delightful and immensely pleasing.
Whereas the ‘exterior’ part of the Lexus stall appears calm and clean, the ‘interior’ really is an island of confident class and supreme luxury. The lounge’s ambience certainly wouldn’t appear to be out of place in any five star superior hotel, although the delicate Japanese flavour apparent in some of the furniture and detailing (in rather subtle ways) has a delightful touch of Tokyo’s venerable Okura Hotel to it.
None of the wood used is fake or laminated. All materials employed have an honest, superior quality to them. Even the espresso machine and glassware are top-of-the-line.
In Lexus’ case, a single stall can do more to profoundly change one’s view of a brand than a dozen tv spots. This is only possible when not just any expenses are spared - but when there is a clear, undiluted message to be conveyed with conviction. The German ‘premium’ really ought to take note.
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