Conventions and business events are evolving all the time. [In 2017] one of the leading exhibitors at the world’s largest motor show, IAA Frankfurt, took its involvement to new heights with a convention that reflected the future of the brand – outside of the main event.
Mercedes-Benz took its involvement beyond the main stage of Germany’s renowned motor show off-grid before the new year, joining forces with the organiser behind the Texas-based festival South by Southwest (SXSW) for a convention that saw the exhibitor leave the confines of the exhibition hall and become the most interesting show in town.
The first ‘me Convention’ took place at the multipurpose Festhalle Frankfurt venue on 15-17 September 2017. Mercedes said there had been 2,700 attendees from 35 countries. They gathered to hear a 150-strong speaker line-up that included astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, cyborg Neil Harbisson, sociologist Auma Obama and Mercedes-Benz chairman Dieter Zetsche. A far cry from the usual motor show mini-event featuring an industry commentator running through pre-approved questions with one of the brand’s marketing bods.
Through the me Convention, Mercedes has found a way in which to bring the customer closer to the brand than ever before, a goal that conventions and live events are uniquely capable of achieving.
“Our company is in the midst of a transformation from a car manufacturer to a mobility services provider for the society of tomorrow,” marketing director of Mercedes-Benz Cars Natanael Sijanta explained. “In this process, we always put people and their needs at the centre. However, to know these needs we must get in contact with the people and talk with them – and use new ways to do so.
“The focus of the me Convention was on dialogue, interaction and networking,” he said. “The event combined elements of conferences and festivals. It covered future topics such as CASE – that is to say Connectivity, Autonomous driving, Sharing and services as well as Electromobility – and from that starting point ventured far beyond the ‘automotive horizon’. We talked intensively about and discussed ideas and technologies that make new products possible in the first place.”
Mercedes’ idea was to engage its audience in a way it could not achieve inside the hall at IAA Frankfurt and place the brand front and centre, together with its ideals, rather than the product itself.
For anyone familiar with the social and business commentator Simon Sinek, leading brands develop a loyal following by selling the why, not the what. It’s ideology, not components, that has the queues lining up round the block when Apple releases its new iPhone.
In the case of Mercedes, Sijanta said the company is in the midst of a rather aggrandising transformation from a car manufacturer to a “mobility services provider for the society of tomorrow”. That level of abstraction requires in-depth exposure to the audience, and the me Convention provided a platform that enabled the exposure to achieve Mercedes’ goals.
The event was built around five topics that expanded beyond the realm of automobiles: New Creation, New Leadership, New Realities, New Velocity and New Urbanism. These were explored through convention formats including seminars, workshops, interactive labs, art installations and an evening event programme, all inspiring visitors to become part of what Mercedes-Benz called “a global force turning dreams of tomorrow into realities”.
”By staging the me Convention, we triggered a discourse about the future and discussed how people want to work, communicate, move around, consume, and live in future. In so doing, we developed target groups for us that are open to new developments and trends in business and society.”
Sijanta said the event continued the firm’s evolvement of its trade fair presences. “We used the Frankfurt Motor Show IAA this year for the first time to open up new dimensions in brand perception among the target groups relevant to us with a completely new format that was unusual for an automaker in the past. Our aim was to transform the traditional trade fair into an inspiring community platform.
As to how Mercedes went about pulling this feat off without upsetting the team at IAA Frankfurt, it seems any fears of the event being parasitic, drawing business from the main event at Messe Frankfurt, were dismissed. In fact the automotive giant says that when it approached the IAA, they were supportive, anticipating visitors drawn to me Convention who in the past never or rarely visited an auto show. However, the detailed planning and implementation together with SXSW took place independent of the IAA. “There were no provisions or restrictions,” said Sijanta. “We believe that formats such as the me Convention are an asset for the classic trade fair formats.”
The next stage is for Mercedes to get together with SXSW to analyse in detail how the event was received by the participants and visitors, and how to progress it for . All they would confirm at this stage was that they are planning to continue this format together with SXSW, and would communicate in which form this will take place “in due course”.
Concerns are rightly raised, however. This move by Mercedes-Benz has echoes of Apple pulling out of Macworld in 2009 and Microsoft eventually pulling out of CES in 2012, both in order to make brand launches independently without the dilution of their competitors doing the same in the stand next door.
Perhaps by bolting an exhibition element onto the conference, Mercedes-Benz could ensure it has the spotlight to itself. However, it would need to secure an audience itself, because should it depart from IAA Frankfurt and still depend the audience that flies into the city for the motor show, then it may stray from the lines of fair practice.
To stage the event on any other date would require convincing people to fly to Frankfurt solely for their event, another date in an already busy motor show event calendar.
It’s one thing to break with convention, and quite another to do away with the convention entirely