Lexus may be best known for its luxury cars that wed class and aesthetics with the latest in automotive technology. But it wasn't just its vehicles that made Lexus Europe one of the surprise highlights for journalists attending the 2017 Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (IAA), aka the Frankfurt Motor Show. IAA is one of the world's largest and most competitive biennial auto shows. To call the event massive would be an understatement. The 2017 "Future Now" themed IAA boasted 1,000 exhibitors – 50 of which were automobile producers – and featured more than 300 new automotive innovations including 228 world premieres that focused on the latest in electric mobility, urban mobility, and digitization, all in line with the show's theme.
Sprawling across 12 buildings and encompassing 2.5 million square feet of floor space, the show drew more than 800,000 visitors. Equally important – especially for Lexus, which has less brand recognition in Europe than in other regions of the world – the show attracted roughly 10,000 journalists, broadcasters, bloggers, and influencers from 100 different countries, making
IAA a high-stakes event for automotive brands.
However, attracting media attention at IAA is no Sunday drive, especially for Lexus, a Japanese company at a German motor show dominated by top German brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen. "This is probably the most competitive automotive show in Europe," says Anastasia Stolyarova, product communication specialist for Lexus Europe.
Perhaps the company's biggest speed bump, though, was that it wasn't rolling out any global launches or new innovations at this year's show. That's not to say the company didn't have anything worth seeing. Two of its flagship models had been given recent facelifts and featured exciting technologies, such as a precollision system and adaptive cruise controls.
Additionally, while the new Lexus NX, a sporty crossover, had already been launched, its appearance at IAA represented a European premiere. But at a show like IAA, that's a sizable distinction – a bit like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain. Since 60 percent of IAA's visitors report that they primarily attend the show to see the latest innovations and the newest and rarest cars, Lexus knew that its competitors' world premieres and concept models were likely to consume the majority of the media's bandwidth.
Exacerbating those challenges was the traditional structure of IAA's two dedicated press days. During those press days in 2017, IAA allotted and promoted 98 press conferences, with each conference host limited to a 15-minute time slot, some of which overlapped other events. Because of that tight schedule, journalists wishing to view multiple press events often had to hustle at highway speeds from exhibit to exhibit and building to building if they hoped to catch the next, or ongoing, conference. That scheduling nightmare – combined with the fact that many press conferences run over their allotted times, and the reality that simply getting from one exhibit to another at a show the size of IAA can take several minutes – meant journalists were often forced to pick and choose which press briefings to attend.
Since the newest innovations that aligned with the show's Future Now theme were likely to siphon off the majority of journalists, Stolyarova sought a creative way to make press reps beat a path to the company's exhibit and help keep Lexus on track to meet its goal of 100,000 European sales by 2020. The show's challenges loomed like roadblocks, so Lexus kept its objectives modest: increase contact with individual journalists and generate more positive media than the brand had during IAA 2015, when the company had roughly 325 media-rep contacts during the press days.
An Alternative Route
Lexus cultivates an image of being bold, pioneering, and imaginative, characteristics in line with its "Experience Amazing" slogan. But that brand experience is also strongly rooted in its traditional Japanese philosophy of omotenashi, a supreme form of hospitality where hosts are so in tune with their guests that they can anticipate and fulfill their needs even before those guests realize their own desires. Stolyarova and her team realized the frenetic press-day blitz was not a hospitable way for Lexus to meet journalists' needs. So the company decided to find an engagement strategy that extended the omotenashi philosophy to its target audience of influential writers and editors while simultaneously incorporating the kind of cutting-edge technology that would attract journalists' attention and align with IAA's theme.
Stolyarova concluded that if Lexus stayed on the same well-driven path as the other exhibitors, it might be left in the dust. "Because we didn't have any big world premieres to talk about," she says, "we thought it was the perfect opportunity to experiment and try something new and extraordinary to generate media buzz." So Lexus exited the Autobahn, so to speak, and veered into uncharted territory alongside Vok Dams Events GmbH.
Vok Dams, which has a history of managing media events, was well-suited for the task, having conducted several studies about journalists' needs. It knew, for instance, that press reps crave more flexible scheduling and personal appreciation than traditional motor shows allow. So rather than relying on 15-minute prescheduled press conferences, the Vok Dams creative team envisioned an interactive, personalized, on-demand press event that journalists could attend at their convenience instead of only during predetermined, overlapping time slots. It was a radical concept that had never been tried at a motor show, and Lexus felt the idea fit its bold, pioneering, and hospitable brand. Plus, the strategy made intuitive sense: An on-demand format would allow journalists to have two entire days to visit the exhibit, increasing the brand's chances of capturing media exposure.
Vok Dams, which prides itself on being an early adopter when it comes to innovative approaches to exhibiting, believed the visionary concept would only pay off if it was accompanied by an equally original format. And its creative team found an ideal, cutting-edge solution in the Microsoft HoloLens. "Lexus wanted a press conference to fit its 'Experience Amazing' slogan," says Melaine Piorek, creative director at Vok Dams, "and we thought the Microsoft HoloLens could create that amazing experience." Lexus agreed.
The Microsoft HoloLens is a set of smart glasses that allows wearers to examine the physical world while simultaneously accessing a virtual world through holograms seemingly projected into the physical space, though the holograms are actually projected onto the lens and seen only by the user. As such, HoloLenses aren't considered virtual-reality hardware, but rather augmented reality (AR) gear because the content augments (rather than replaces) users' actual, physical space. HoloLens wearers can also interact with some holograms by "air tapping" to manipulate them and initiate other engagements. Equipped with earpieces that allow audio to sync with the virtual visual content without drowning out a physical companion, the holographic devices were exactly the sort of solution that would help Lexus to meet its goals. Betting that the flexibility of on-demand scheduling combined with the novelty of the HoloLens would pique the curiosity of press reps, Stolyarova and her team signed off on the strategy, and the unrushed, on-demand, AR-powered press conference was born.
Lexus test drove the idea past IAA organizers before swerving away from the prescheduled meetings that exhibitors had been limited to in the past. Thankfully show management was supportive of the on-demand strategy. Perhaps they recognized a potentially transformative approach for motor shows, which are trying to adapt to dropping attendance and more brands pulling out of large events in favor of smaller or alternative venues where they think they can get more miles per gallon.
"Lexus wanted a press conference to fit its 'Experience Amazing' slogan," says Melaine Piorek, creative director at Vok Dams Events GmbH, "and we thought the Microsoft HoloLens could create that amazing experience."
But as all pioneers learn, the road less traveled is often a bumpy ride, so it's no surprise that Lexus and Vok Dams faced a few challenges while turning their vision into reality. Once Lexus decided to create the on-demand press conference with the HoloLens, Vok Dams had to procure the devices. But because the HoloLens moved from preproduction to a limited global expansion in late 2016, units were not readily available. Vok Dams quite literally had to search the globe to secure the 20 AR devices it estimated were needed to ensure journalists weren't left with an inhospitable wait time. Also, the 15-minute press experience that Lexus envisioned, along with about 12 minutes of optional bonus material, would strain every kilobyte of the HoloLenses' operating capacity.
Since neither Lexus nor Vok Dams had used the technology before, they first had to figure out how the devices actually worked. "We know how to develop digital content like websites and videos, and we know how to set up press conferences," Piorek says, "but we had to figure out how to make the virtual and the physical worlds work together in the HoloLens."
Much of the testing was done in a warehouse with a mock-up of the exhibit. In the meantime, scripts had to be written and presenters prepped and filmed in front of a green screen. Developers had to generate virtual content to be uploaded and synchronized with the holographic presenters. And holograms of vehicle components had to be created that would appear superimposed on those automobiles when the lenses recognized a specific feature. It was a lot of work, and the prototype product wasn't ready until roughly a week before IAA. "The final time the Microsoft HoloLens was tested on the actual booth was the night before the show," says Eileen Wülferath, project manager for Vok Dams, "which meant we were programming changes to the Microsoft HoloLens with just moments to spare."
Taking it for a Spin
The Lexus IAA exhibit was an attraction all on its own. Like its brand, the booth encapsulated that dichotomy between elegance and functionality, subtly echoing the company's Japanese heritage. Its curved, backlit headers of muted white hung suspended over vehicles displayed on circular pedestals, contrasting with the more formal, straight lines of wood panels and shelves that held a mixture of domestic decor and classic automotive pieces, such as steering wheels and rims. The entire booth was an artful balance of harmonious contrasts. While most of the autos on display stuck to a palette of white, black, and silver, a select few provided pops of bold color. Clear aisles designed for efficient movement gave way to a brand gallery area arranged to invite lingering.
As meticulous as the exhibit was, when IAA opened its doors on the first press day, it was the allure of the mixed-reality, on-demand press experience that drew journalists to the exhibit. Two weeks before IAA, the Lexus public relations team issued a press release and teaser clip of the experience through its newsroom and Twitter account. A short video of a "holographic" Alain Uyttenhoven, the then head of Lexus Europe, invited members of the media to stop by the exhibit and experience a press conference "when you want and at your own pace."
When intrigued journalists filtered into the exhibit between other press conferences, hostesses informed them that the AR experience would last approximately 15 minutes. If the time was convenient for the journalist, he or she would begin. Hostesses then presented each participant with a HoloLens, helped adjust the headpiece, and gave brief instructions on how to use the device. Once the smart glasses were in place, a holographic Stolyarova appeared to greet journalists and help them test the devices by directing their eyes to specific targets in the exhibit.
Despite having no world premieres to attract the media, Lexus Europe managed to engage nearly 500 journalists through its on-demand press conference, achieving a more than 50-percent
increase in media contacts.
One of the great advantages of the HoloLens is that even though it is state-of-the-art, its lenses are incredibly intuitive. Additionally, Lexus made the presentation relatively straightforward, so no advanced participant training was necessary. For the most part, journalists simply had to walk, watch, and listen. After a few seconds of acclimating to the headset and recognizing that they were still immersed in the physical world with full range of vision, nearly all participants took to the glasses like a racecar driver takes to the track. Just to be hospitable, staffers were sprinkled throughout the exhibit to aid those having any difficulty, but they were rarely needed.
From the information stand, Stolyarova's image invited journalists to follow a series of virtual arrows to the first of four activations, which was marked by a pillar of light in front of two of Lexus' flagship models. Walking into the pillar activated a three-minute experience that commenced with Uyttenhoven appearing between the pair of vehicles, looking and sounding remarkably clear. Uyttenhoven's hologram was just transparent enough to see the cars through him, and every so often he would playfully ripple with static, much like R2-D2's holographic projection of Princess Leia pleading for Obi-Wan Kenobi's aid. Because the hologram was anchored in the space, Uyttenhoven remained affixed to the ground between the two vehicles regardless of where users looked, and since the aural component automatically adjusted the sound in the earpieces, his voice also emanated from the hologram's location for a surreally realistic effect.
Uyttenhoven officially welcomed visitors and launched into the latest details about the two flagship models: a luxury coupe and a luxury sedan. As he discussed the sedan's improved construction, a blue hologram of its chassis was overlaid on the model. When he transitioned to the vehicle's hybrid powertrain, the overlay transitioned as well. Titles and descriptive phrases appeared beside Uyttenhoven to highlight key messages as he spoke, rendering what might have otherwise been a blasé speech both dynamic and captivating. Before the first activation concluded, the pillar dimmed, and a new pillar became active, cuing the user to move toward it, although journalists did have the option of skipping a segment if they weren't interested in learning about a particular car.
The second and third pillars took users to other vehicle models, where holograms of product planning specialists detailed updates and highlighted innovations such as Lexus' precollision warning and assist system and its adaptive cruise control. Like the previous presentation, overlays, animations, and dynamic headlines augmented the product specialists' speeches.
Following the virtual
arrows to the final activation, journalists found themselves in the booth's main building, which was arranged like a luxurious den with warm wood, soft light, and shelves holding artfully arranged objects. Uyttenhoven returned to emphasize Lexus' increasing European sales and its growing impact on the European market, supported with an animated, upward-trending graph. Before he ended the press conference, Uyttenhoven introduced bonus activations about recent Lexus initiatives that appeared as video options interested journalists could initiate with an air tap.
As the presentation wrapped up, Uyttenhoven reminded journalists to return their HoloLenses to a hostess and pick up their press kits, which were a key component of the on-demand strategy.
Unlike traditional press conferences where journalists are able to take photos and video footage for use in their subsequent coverage, the Lexus press event and related holograms were only visible to users, preventing journalists from filming Uyttenhoven's address and limiting photo ops to in-booth autos. Unsurprisingly, the ever-attentive Lexus hosts with their omotenashi philosophy anticipated this need, and each press kit included a USB flash drive containing all of the conference videos and photos along with the usual press literature.
Driving Home Results
Throughout the show, word spread about Lexus' innovative press event, and journalists burned rubber en route to the booth. Despite having no world premieres or new innovations to lure the media, Lexus managed to individually engage nearly 500 journalists via its on-demand press conference, achieving a more than 50-percent increase in media contacts compared to IAA 2015. "It is remarkable Lexus was able to score this level of media reach despite having nothing new at the show," said one Corporate Event Awards judge, while another described the company's approach as "an ingenious way to address a problem many marketers face."
Journalists almost universally appreciated Lexus' on-demand press conference, calling it "cool," "innovative," "user friendly," and "the best format at IAA." The format not only afforded journalists some much desired flexibility but also enabled them to experience a novel technology few had previously encountered. By combining the on-demand press conference with state-of-the-art technology, Lexus ensured journalists were exposed to its products and messaging, leading to a 30-percent increase in media reach compared to the 2015 show, based on global media monitoring. And by refusing to drive the same potholed road as the competition, Lexus and Vok Dams may very well have paved the way for a new AR Autobahn and the future of on-demand exhibiting. E