Special Report: Trade and Consumer Shows: Much like any other medium

Ten years ago, bikini-clad models in high heels were considered standard equipment at the country's major auto shows.At the time, it was not uncommon for show visitors to spend as much time perusing Miss January as they did evaluating the merits...

Ten years ago, bikini-clad models in high heels were considered standard equipment at the country’s major auto shows.

At the time, it was not uncommon for show visitors to spend as much time perusing Miss January as they did evaluating the merits of a car maker’s latest offerings.

Times have changed.

Just as auto makers have dispensed with titillation as a means of attracting potential car buyers to their exhibits, so marketers in general have changed their whole approach to the business of trade and consumer shows.

No longer something to be executed with as little time, effort and commitment by senior management as possible, shows are increasingly being seen by marketers as a potentially powerful and cost effective marketing vehicle, to be planned, executed and evaluated much like any other advertising medium.

Ian Forsyth, director of marketing at Toronto-based car maker Nissan Canada, puts it like this: ‘We look at [shows] in terms of who we think will be there, how much money we are going to have to invest, what kind of return we are going to get.

‘We measure lead generation and actual sales. And we try to control the message we are giving, the same as we would in any creative exercise.’

Nissan recently invested approximately $100,000 in a new exhibit, designed by Toronto-based exhibit manufacturer Giltspur, to support and extend the image established in the car maker’s mass media advertising.

‘From a design point of view, we wanted [the exhibit] to reflect Nissan as a modern company, one that is open to consumers and open to communication,’ says Forsyth.

‘From a technical point of view, we wanted to make it easy for people to work in the booth. We did not want to have areas that were out of sight, although we wanted to give people an area where they could have a discussion of a more private nature, if that is what they desired,’ he says.

According to Forsyth, Nissan’s approach to the show circuit has changed considerably over the past few years.

Rather than use them as a short term vehicle to sell the cars on display, Nissan now sees them as an opportunity to flesh out its corporate message and provide consumers information on which they can base their purchase decisions in the future.

‘People are taking a lot longer to buy a car. It’s not a one-month process, it’s a three-month process,’ says Forsyth, attributing the prolonged buying cycle to a sluggish economy and a greater number of consumer choices than ever before.

‘You need to, in effect, arm them with information, so when they do go out and buy, they have a good understanding of what you offer and are therefore interested in coming to see you,’ he says.

‘Consumers want to feel that they haven’t left anything on the table, that they haven’t overlooked something that could be important in making their decision.’

With that thought in mind, Nissan has made it easier for customers to get as much information as they want by drawing them into the exhibit, one step at a time.

‘Just as you would put a headline on a newspaper ad, we are putting headlines in our booth, so even if people don’t come in and read everything, they can get an idea what Nissan stands for from an image point of view,’ says Forsyth.

‘Then, if they enter the display area, just as you would find with a newspaper ad, there is more and more detail. We have pedestal cards on every car. And we can supply brochures which tell you everything you would ever want to know,’ he says.

As well, the booth is staffed with customer service representatives who are versed in general product information and Nissan’s customer satisfaction policy.

Martin Walsh, director of marketing at Oshawa, Ont.-based General Motors of Canada, says his company’s approach to shows has also changed in recent years, largely in response to the nature of the contemporary consumer.

‘Today’s consumer is very sophisticated and very discerning and they want good information. They are saying, `I am not as interested in entertainment as I am in acquiring information about your product.”

Two years ago, GM, which mounts exhibits in nearly 50 auto shows annually, and as many as three each week between January and April, decided it needed a more disciplined approach to its participation in shows.

At the recommendation of Bankten Communication Services, a marketing project management company based in Markham, Ont., GM conducted focus groups in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to find out precisely what consumers wanted — and did not want — from their show experience.

Overwhelmingly, says Walsh, respondents said they said they wanted full access to the vehicles — they did not want to see cars elevated on turntables.

As a result, GM redesigned its national display to bring more cars down to floor level.

‘If we’ve got a new vehicle, perhaps a prototype, where we need to maintain some distance from the crowd, we will still put it on a turntable, but we have learned to build ramps up around the turntable, so people can still go up and see the car, without feeling it has been elevated on a pedestal,’ says Walsh.

As well, GM has installed customer-friendly consoles that allow prospective buyers, with minimal or no assistance, to price a vehicle to their specifications.

‘If it doesn’t fit their budget, they can delete options that are perhaps less important to them to arrive at the right price, or they can switch to another model in an atmosphere that is positive. There is no pressure to buy a vehicle,’ says Walsh.

Applying consumer research to the show medium in much the same way the company might pre-test a concept for a television commercial represented a significant change for the auto maker.

‘What we had always done before was simply respond to an image of a particular vehicle, not necessarily paying attention to the desires and attitudes of the autoshow goer,’ explains Mike Johnston, account manager at Bankten.

Asked why GM decided to conduct show research in the first place, Johnston says the company was looking for a way to appeal more directly to the ‘buyer-intender’ portion of the show audience, in other words, people who intend to buy a car in the next 12 months.

The average auto show goer is comparatively young, and usually male, says Johnston, while GM’s target is generally more mature, and split more evenly between males and females.

Evidently, the research and subsequent re-design paid off.

Not only was the exhibit declared by automotive journalists the most outstanding exhibit at this year’s Montreal International Auto Show, but GM saw an 18.5% increase in the number of product catalogues distributed over last year.

Steve Manweiller, sales promotion supervisor at Toronto-based Yamaha Motor Canada, manufacturer of outdoor products such as snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, motorcycles, outboard motors, personal watercraft and snowblowers, says he salivates when he sees the quality and scope of the auto makers’ exhibits.

While Yamaha cannot afford to spend the same kind of money on its show efforts, Manweiller does feel it is important to support the image established in the company’s consumer and trade advertising with an appropriate display.

‘Yamaha sells a premium priced product, we have to have a premium looking booth,’ says Manweiller.

‘We want people to think they are dealing with professionals and can therefore feel confident they are spending their money on an elite product,’ he says.

Manweiller estimates the company spends 25% of its marketing budget on consumer shows such as The Sportsmen’s Show in Toronto, to complement print advertising in vertical publications like Ontario Out-of-Doors, Ontario Snowmobiler, Boat Guide and Cottage Life.

John Boeckh, vice president of marketing at AGF Management, a company which sells mutual funds mainly to the retirement and pre-retirement market, agrees it’s vital to reinforce one’s corporate image at shows, particularly given the number of new players in the financial services market.

Boeckh describes his company’s custom-made exhibit, designed and manufactured by Toronto-based Convex Systems, as ‘classy, upscale, established.

‘We don’t want to convey the impression of an agressive upstart,’ he says. ‘There are no shiny suits and pointed shoes.’

In the same way that marketers are paying more attention to their image on the show floor, they are also being more hard-nosed in their assessment of the shows themselves.

‘It is fair to say we are being more discerning about the shows we are going into, than we maybe were in the past,’ says GM’s Walsh.

‘We are also being more demanding of the people who promote the shows in terms of asking them in advance for information on the audience they intend to attract. That, plus previous experience, gives us some guidance in our decision to participate,’ he says.

Sylvie Bourget, vice president of marketing at Montreal-based Ultima Foods, makers of Yoplait brand yogurt, says given the labor-intensive nature of shows, she evaluates very carefully her decision to participate in any event.

‘For budgetary reasons, not all shows meet our criteria. How they will promote the show to drive public attendance is essential to us. We are demanding in terms of our kiosk position. We invest quite a lot, so we expect the organizers to support us as well,’ she says.

The company, which spends 4-5% of its total marketing budget on trade and consumer shows, will only participate in events which have a very specific target market, such as parents, says Bourget, and even then, only when the company has something noteworthy to announce.

Ultima is now using The Parent Show in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, among other events, to encourage trial among children 0-7 years of Minigo, a fruit-flavored quark cheese product the company launched the year before last.

While the product is not technically new, the strategy to remain active in shows will continue for the Minigo brand since there is always a steady supply of new parents and children, she says.

Bourget says she expects to increase her participation in targeted shows as the company introduces new products in the years to come.

Ralph Cain, marketing manager at Toronto-based Teledyne Water Pik, which manufactures irrigators, impression materials and other products used by dentists and hygienists, and dental care products for consumers, says his company has reduced its participation in general interest trade shows by 25% over the past couple of years because it couldn’t justify the cost.

‘We didn’t see the decision-makers at these shows. As well, there was an overlap in participation. You can go to a large u.s. hardware show in January and three weeks later, there’s a Canadian hardware show in Toronto. So it was redundant,’ he says.

Still, Cain is not down on the whole show medium. In fact, he calls Teledyne Water Pik’s participation at the shows held in conjunction with the five major dental conventions held annually in Canada ‘the best and most economical way of having our products displayed and shown to the profession.’

It’s the quality of the attendees, not the number of shows in which you participate, that counts, says Cain.

The company used the recent introduction of its new Perio Pik irrigator as an excuse to upgrade the quality and size of its exhibit.

Designed and manufactured by Convex Systems, the custom-made display houses a self-contained compressor to allow visitors to the booth to actually try out the irrigator.

As well, the exhibit contains a glass showcase in which historical Water Pik products, some that date back to the early 1900s, are displayed.

Cain attributes increased sales this year to the exhibit, which he says generated interest and gave showgoers the impression the company is well-established.

Jeff Hurst, marketing manager at Watt & Wallace, distributor of Cross pens, says his company has dropped out of more general interest trade shows to concentrate its efforts on the Canadian Office Products Show and the Canadian Jewellers Association Show, which attract its two key retail markets.

‘With Cross being a well-known brand, we can’t go in with a less than average booth to save money,’ says Hurst.

By being more selective with respect to the shows in which it would participate, Watt & Wallace was able to justify a custom-made exhibit. Designed and manufactured by Scarborough, Ont.-based ExpoSystems, the booth sports high-quality product shots of its new Cross Townsend collection.

‘We want to come across as the premium writing instrument, so it’s very important we have a booth that reflects an image Cross has spent 100 years developing,’ says Hurst.

Ian Lum You, trade marketing manager at Mississauga, Ont.-based Gerber Canada, makers of baby food, infant care products and most recently a line of infant apparel, says his company has increased its participation in parent shows because they are a cost effective way to reach Gerber’s very specific target market.

‘The five shows we have participated in this year have attracted 60,000 consumers. The total infant market [in Canada] is about 400,000. So right there, you have 15% of your target group.

‘I don’t know how many other vehicles would give you that amount of exposure. It costs less than $1.00 per consumer. When you compare that to direct mail or media advertising, you can see how cost effective that is.’

Lum You says he sees the shows as an extension of the company’s media advertising in magazines such as Today’s Parent and Great Expectations and as such, worth a significant investment.

‘We set out to portray a professional image. When you are dealing with a product like baby food, mothers put a lot of trust into the company that is making the product. Babies cannot say `this doesn’t taste right.”

In addition to a high-profile exhibit, Gerber co-sponsors with one of its key trade accounts, Shoppers Drug Mart, the show’s changing and feeding area. Both companies contribute furnishings and free product samples.

‘We are trying to create in the mind of consumers that Gerber provided them with a clean environment in which to change and feed their babies,’ says Lum You.

‘Hopefully, that will create a lasting impression in the parent’s mind when she goes to the store and has to make a purchase decision.’