Are automotive launch events still relevant in 2024?

Jennifer Davidson explores how new model launch events can they be adapted for the modern age

From Alfa Romeo’s first mainstream electric car to BMW’s all-new IX3 SUV, alongside more affordable vehicles like the Citroen e-C3, 2024’s automotive calendar is already packed with eagerly anticipated launch dates and car unveilings. With the shortage of semiconductors, manufacturing times have been much slower, resulting in a backlog of new models waiting to be announced. So, the automotive industry is set for an exciting but fiercely competitive year ahead. Standing out as the model of the year will be extremely tough, and brands will need to pull out all the stops.

Auto shows and car launch events have traditionally been the year’s highlight for car enthusiasts. Brands invite media, fans, dealerships and other critical stakeholders to highly produced and often glamorous events to ensure their latest machines start life with plenty of attention. But today, with social media, new technologies, and an enormous digital ecosystem at their fingertips, there are a plethora of touchpoints available for brands to connect with the audiences they need.

That begs the question: are launch events still relevant today? And how can they be adapted for the modern age?

1886 to 2024: The evolution of car launch events

Launch events have been part of the automotive industry since the beginning, when Karl Benz revealed the world’s first car—the three-wheeled Benz Patent-Motorwagen—to the public on 3 July 1886. Unveiled on the Ringstrasse in Mannheim, Benz publicly drove the car for the first time, reaching a top speed of 10mph. A little underwhelming by today’s standards, but truly revolutionary at the time. Benz set the stage for the launch events to come over the next one and a half centuries, some of which helped to propel car models into phenomenal and long-lasting successes.

Although COVID-19 restrictions have since been lifted, its impact on how car manufacturers bring new models to market has been long-lasting

In April 1964, then-Chief Executive Henry Ford II debuted the Ford Mustang at the largest exhibit of the New York World’s Fair. Almost 22,000 Mustangs were snapped up immediately by buyers, and Ford went on to sell more than 400,000 within its first year of production. The Mustang was solidified as one of the most iconic cars of the twentieth century.

Fifty-two years later, Tesla enjoyed a similar experience when unveiling its Model 3. With a launch event to rival the likes of Apple and Samsung, 325,000 pre-orders were made within its first week, reportedly the most successful product launch ever. The Model 3 went on to become the all-time bestselling plug-in electric car worldwide.

As new technologies emerged, the 2010s saw brands embed impressive digital elements into their car launch shows. In 2017, the unveiling event for the Volkswagen Polo made cool use of augmented reality (AR) on-stage, using an invisible screen to create 3D imagery around the car on display.

Then, the pandemic. All physical events were shut down, and so the likes of Audi, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz had to reveal new car models to the media and the public through online streams and social media. Although COVID-19 restrictions have since been lifted, its impact on how car manufacturers bring new models to market has been long-lasting. Behaviours have shifted; e-commerce has skyrocketed with no signs of reverting, and journalists have become used to receiving the information they need at their desks. Now, brands can bring cars to audiences through digital avenues alone, streaming presentations straight into people’s homes.

Cupra DarkRebel launch
Digital media lacks the spectacle and physical experience of an in-person event. Pictured: Seat’s
Jorge Díez and Wayne Griffiths at the DarkRebel unveiling in Munich

Advancements in AR and virtual reality (VR) technologies also create even more opportunities for audiences to experience cars remotely. Last year, for example, Ford experimented with a virtual launch for its new Explorer. The brand created a virtual world in which audiences could ‘test drive’ the vehicle from their own devices, with European marketing director Peter Zillig calling the innovation a “one-of-a-kind opportunity for us to create meaningful connections with potential customers”.

The role of launch events today

The benefits of launching a car via digital channels are apparent; brands can achieve wider reach at lower cost. However, digital media lacks the spectacle and physical experience of an in-person event. Driving a car is a highly physical and immersive experience by nature. From the feel of the steering wheel in your hands and the view of the road ahead to the smell of leather seats and the sound of the engine, almost all of your senses are engaged. That experience cannot yet be accurately replicated through a digital medium.

At launch events, audiences can touch the car, get inside it, and explore its features from all angles. As one of the most expensive purchases most people will make in several years, consumers want to know they’re getting the best product for their money.

Brands can also drive an emotional connection with that car far more easily in person than they can digitally, and with such fierce competition this year, strong brand connections will be more critical than ever. Events are all about connecting face-to-face and building meaningful relationships. They are a powerful way to unite communities and buyers, provide positive experiences, and create life-long brand advocates.

From Henry Ford II to Tesla’s Elon Musk, there are also opportunities for company leaders to take to the stage and humanise the brand, or for employees to speak to attendees directly and address any concerns. This is especially important when launching electric cars, which many consumers still view with trepidation.

Tesla’s Cybertruck events in 2019 and 2023 show the power events still hold for automotive brands. Both events received extensive press coverage, and according to Chief Executive Musk, Tesla received over 250,000 reservations for the apocalypse-ready vehicle within a week of unveiling it. Following the 2023 delivery event in November last year, that figure reportedly reached two million. For Tesla, brand advocacy is everything; these events are one of its most crucial tools.

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Future events need to blend the power of digital and in-person experiences to drive that crucial emotional connection while securing mass reach

Ultimately, few other products have such a natural affinity with launch events as cars. Even as consumers increasingly shift to online shopping, cars remain one of the few products they want to try in person before buying. A recent survey by JudgeService found that only around one in ten UK shoppers plan to buy a car exclusively through a digital process, with the vast majority keen to visit a physical dealership showroom at some point during the purchase process.

The future of car launch events

So, are automotive launch events still relevant today? Absolutely. In fact, they’ve never been more crucial to stand out among the sea of new cars due to hit the roads this year. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to evolve. Future events need to blend the power of digital and in-person experiences to drive that crucial emotional connection while securing mass reach.

That might mean live-streaming an in-person event. The Cybertruck delivery event was streamed on X (formerly Twitter); with its punky underground venue and excited crowd, the event perfectly embodied the car’s brand while reaching millions of people in their homes. Alternatively, it could mean creating AR and VR experiences to complement an event and immerse those who could not attend.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic revealed many lessons about the value of digital media for automotive brands. However, the industry must not forget the tactics it used to sell cars successfully over the many years that came before.

By Jennifer Davidson, Founder of Sleek Events

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