The countdown to a UK-based new car launch
Every week, sometimes every other day, Iain Robertson is invited by the public and press relations managers of British-based car companies to attend a brand-new model launch but have you ever wondered what is involved in such costly exercises?
New car launch events remain the most efficient method of generating valid opinions about new products. To the respective manufacturer, they are costly gestures that are still considered to be essential. To the motoring writer/journalist, they are time consuming exercises, especially when held overseas, where the individual car companies hope that they can avoid unwarranted attention by way of a moderately remote location, while also hoping for somewhat better climatic conditions than might be available at home. Attending such events costs at least two days and might even demand a second night too.
While the days of the ‘corporate bribe’, which could have been anything ranging from a practical keepsake, or expensive toy, even to cash-in-a-plain-brown-envelope, are all but over, a pleasant five star venue, business class flights and Michelin standard catering are all expectations of the PR teams. However, this outcome is usually upwards of two years after a new model has been signed-off for production by the senior management of the companies concerned.
Established motor manufacturers work to a cyclical replacement of their existing models (every three years for a model refresh; six to seven years for the next generation). The very latest Mazda CX-30 that you see pictured here is a new category of car for its maker in December 2019, the gestation period of which could be as much as that of the latest Mazda3, which was UK launched in May 2019, a model to which it is closely related.
The carmaker’s marketing department will commence a worldwide plan to determine which markets will receive which models. Trim, model and technological designations will be established, based on each territory’s requirements, which will be agreed either by face-to-face, or senior management telephone links. In-company communications will start immediately afterwards. Timing is crucial, especially as the market is hyper-competitive. Massive research programmes that can involve connecting with competitors will determine a best launch timing, to maximise on the impact.
Occasionally, scant information is released to ‘long-lead’ titles, to tease the market, sometimes a year ahead of the launch exercise, which is likely to coincide with on-road testing by the manufacturer of ‘disguised’ product. The disguise can involve additional plastic blocks being applied to the final product under the camouflage wrap, to make it even more difficult for rivals’ ‘spies’ to ascertain the actual outline.
Around nine months prior to launch, the local territory PR teams start to ramp up their efforts in readiness. An appropriate venue needs to be sought, which may demand a presentation suite (although that can be at a separate location altogether), from which a carefully crafted marketing ‘spiel’ will be presented. Seasonal traffic conditions, potential route planning and liaison with the Police (sometimes) may be required. In addition, printed materials related to the launch will need to be created, which can include menu cards, table plans, key-holders, press information packs, pens, notepads, USB sticks and even airline ticket holders. Some PR teams involve their VIP, fleet and corporate departments, as a means to amortise the costs and media events can often be extended to them. At this stage, any external agencies (marketing, travel, promotional, vehicle logistics, car cleaning, catering etc) will be engaged to work on the launch programme.
With around three months to go before the launch exercise, product related invitations will need to be posted (sometimes using mail but more often online) to around 100 (on average) members of the UK motoring media, from TV, Radio and both printed word and online outlets. These people are selected due to their abilities to publish reports and reviews in the timeliest of manners. The very first cars to arrive will be whisked off for photographic assignments, to create the carmaker’s image library of around 80 every-angle shots, while technical videos will also be produced.
Anticipating a 50% success rate in responses, a few additional slots may be made available for a second tranche of invitees. Usually, around 60-65 places are feasible, spread over a three-days launch programme. Final parking, transport and dietary requirements will be annotated and ‘Final Joining Details’ will be despatched to the invited guests. With just a week prior to the launch, the appropriate, model-related test-driving routes will be completed and, if the vehicles have on-board sat-nav, the information will be plumbed into them; alternatively, a printed book of ‘tulip’ directional instructions will be produced and placed within each test car.
As the PR team will have already ascertained their launch exercise and accessibility roles, they will gird their loins, put on their most welcoming faces and get ready to greet the guests at airports, train stations and central locations relevant to the launch programme. They are usually up early and late to bed. Dependent on timing, meals will be consumed, plenty of talking will be carried out, specific members of the management team will be made available for interviews, driving will be completed (without incidents, or lost guests!) and a modest amount of imbibing will be carried out. Finally, they await the outcomes, both positive and negative, but always critical, prior to planning for the next launch.
Launch budgets can vary from £50,000 to £1,000,000, once all costs are accommodated. However, specialist agencies can establish the notional worth to the manufacturer based on the ‘OTSs’, or Opportunities To See, resulting from the subsequent media coverage. It is always hoped that the ROI is better than the cost implications.