THE ARCHITECTS OF ATTENTION
Automakers spend lavishly on creative, engaging displays designed 'to tell a story' and prompt visitors to snap pictures for Instagram, Matt Bubbers writes
By MATT BUBBERS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 16, 2019 Print Edition, Page C1
When you go to the Canadian International AutoShow this year, take a minute to pause and look around. The most valuable objects you'll see aren't the individual cars or trucks, but rather the elaborate displays on which they sit.
Major automakers spend anywhere from $1-million to $3-million each to build an exhibit for the Toronto show, says Elliot Kohn, chief operating officer of Kubik, a Mississauga-based company responsible for many of the displays this year. Even so, that price tag pales in comparison with the estimated $65-million Mercedes-Benz spent to build a five-storey display at the Frankfurt auto show, or Google's recent trade-show booth that incorporated a roller coaster.
"To tell a story and grab your attention is why [automakers] are there," Kohn says.
On the spectrum of options for a family-friendly day out, modern auto shows fall somewhere between an amusement park and a mall. You'll likely see virtual-reality rigs, interactive games, holographic displays, a mini movie theatre, a life-size Lego supercar, a giant Hot Wheels track, and maybe even your favourite Star Wars characters. Among all of that will be 1,000 new cars and trucks.
For automakers, the goal is ultimately to send you down the sales funnel that leads to a newcar purchase. How automakers go about doing that, though, has changed. They've had to get more creative.
Mazda commissioned a new display from Kubik for the 2019 auto show circuit. Everything about the space - its dramatic spotlight, cool grey architectural concrete and warm wood panels - is designed to draw you in. A digital "Takumi Table" gets visitors to touch and interact with beautifully-crafted Japanese products.
"The whole booth is a brand statement," says Adriano Almeida, Kubik's head of creative services. "[Mazda] is pushing toward luxury, hand-made Japanese luxury versus more industrial luxury."
If you look very closely at the upper wall of the exhibit, you'll see that what looks like concrete is actually printed fabric. It's a trick of the trade, a reminder that this is a moveable feast.
HOW IT'S MADE The design of the various displays and their interactive elements are essential for getting you to spend time with a particular automaker.
The process of creating Mazda's new display began in September of 2017, when members of Kubik's team went to Japan to learn about the brand's vision.
From that, they created sketches and three-dimensional models of the architectural concept.
The exhibit needed to be portable and modular enough to work at the Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver shows. Imagine an enormous, movable bungalow you can tear down and build up in a week or two. It's a little bit like making a movie set, except it has to stand up to hundreds of thousands of people walking all over it.
Once the design was approved and engineering finalized, Mazda's new exhibit was built by hand in Kubik's cavernous workshop using computer numerical control or CNC machines, woodworking tools, welders, large-scale printers and all manner of other specialized devices. An in-house paint shop applied the finishing touches.
Roughly 40 per cent of the square footage at the Toronto show will be occupied by exhibits built by Kubik, Kohn estimates.
The company worked with Volvo, Hyundai, Genesis, Jaguar Land Rover, Infiniti, Nissan and Mazda this year. Kubik has also created displays and commercial spaces for brands including Nike, Red Bull, and Puma, as well as museum exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Lego House in Denmark.
"Shows have shifted dramatically," says Kohn. "Twenty-five years ago, the talent you were putting up on the turntable is what it came down to. ... People would come to look at the models, male or female, and the cars."
Today, the models are long gone and the tone has changed. Auto shows, in Canada at least, are family-friendly events.
"People visiting the Toronto auto show are paying $25 for a ticket, $7 for a kid's ticket, so now it's more about the experience," Kohn says.
PUTTING ON A SHOW
"The days of cars on carpet are gone," says Garett Carr, Ford's global auto show and events manager. "There are so many technologies and accessories in our vehicles, and they are so much more connected. We try to find more engaging ways to tell those stories because you just can't do it with a car sitting a piece of carpet with a sign next to it."
It is for this reason that Ford also has an all-new auto show exhibit, appearing this year in Toronto for the first time. It's a multistorey space built out of bright blue shipping containers.
The main new attraction, Carr says, is a movie theatre. "We're basically running a mini press-conference for consumers twice an hour, every day," he explains. "We're creating a show that will allow consumers to sit there and see all the vehicles we're revealing and get a bit of an emotional attachment."
At other recent auto shows, displays of note have included a digital Animoji on an in-car screen that visitors can talk to, virtual-reality goggles to demonstrate new technology, motion-simulator racing games, and holographic light shows projected over an entire building. These hightech spectacles are all about offering unique experiences that draw visitors in.
Ford also has some low-tech displays too, like a three-metre-tall bear and a lifesize cutout of NASCAR star Joey Logano next to his racecar.
"We try to build in as many Instagramable moments as we can," explains Carr.
Monitoring any social-media buzz gives automakers another way to track the success, or lack thereof, of auto show displays.
"On average, visitors spend four to 4.5 hours at an auto show," Carr says. "We really focus on getting more than our fair share of that time."
A LOGISTICAL DANCE
The Canadian International AutoShow began Friday and runs through Feb. 24.
Load-in, in which all the exhibits begin to fill the 650,000-square-foot space, begins roughly two-weeks in advance of the show opening to the public, Kohn explains.
It's no small task. Mazda's new booth alone requires several trucks to transport.
A small army of people assemble these multimillion-dollar exhibits. On the Sunday afternoon before the show, cars started loading on to their displays. Finally, on Friday at noon, the show was to officially threw open its doors.
More than 20 million people in North America will visit an auto show this year.
Ford's Carr knows exactly why he puts so much effort into these shows. "At the end of the day," he says, "consumers still love to go to auto shows. ... I'm not aware of any other marketing activity in which the consumers actually pay to get marketed to."
'The days of cars on carpet are gone,' says Ford's Garett Carr, summarizing a new era in auto show exhibits. Ford's multistorey space, built out of bright blue shipping containers, will be making its Canadian International AutoShow debut in Toronto to highlight its vehicle lineup including the best-selling F-Series pickup trucks.
Mazda's display, fresh for the 2019 auto show circuit, including Montreal last month, above, features dramatic spotlight, cool grey architectural concrete and warm wood panels. It was created by Mississauga-based Kubik.
Auto trade show AutoMobility LA in Los Angeles last November brought the mountain to the Jeep Gladiator's display. THE GLOBE AND MAIL