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Automakers' agents overhear and record reactions people have to the new products

By Ed Garsten / The Detroit News

DETROIT — Just as North American International Auto Show attendees ply the floor at Cobo Center gaining knowledge for their next car or truck purchase, automakers are gathering intelligence from the car crazy masses.

Undercover agents of sorts for Ford Motor Co. listen intently and note reactions as they mingle among show-goers surrounding production models like the Mustang and concept vehicles like the Ford Bronco.

Ford design chief J Mays calls them the “spy trust” and they’ll do the same at competitors’ displays.

“We like to think of the auto show ... as providing a mental litmus test to gauge public reaction,” Mays said. “The company learns a lot and the information becomes an incredible bargaining tool for design to try to push vehicles through.”

Korean automaker Kia Motors Corp. wants to know how show-goers are reacting to its KCV III concept convertible sports car.

“It’s a very unusual vehicle,” said Walter Anderson, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors America.

“We’re very interested in finding out whether its retractable roof is the type of function that is appealing to consumers or would they rather have a conventional soft top.”

Positive feedback can result in a decision to put a concept vehicle into production. Negative buzz tells an automaker that investing further in that product would be foolish.

Sometimes, an automaker gathers information in time to tweak the design of a vehicle already slated for production.

Mays said that negative comments about the original front-end on the concept version of the new Mustang at a California auto show in the summer of 2002 led to a complete redesign.

Mays said positive buzz is building about a concept update of the Lincoln Aviator sport utility vehicle on display at this year’s show. Much of the redesign is based on last year’s Navicross concept vehicle.

“We went back, made all of the surfacing far more fluid and shapely,” Mays said.

The Pontiac Solstice, Ford GT, Dodge Viper, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Volkswagen Beetle all are vehicles that went from concept to production based on positive feedback from auto show visitors.

“It (feedback) can sometimes influence decisions we’ve made,” said Paul Ballew, General Motors Corp. executive director for market and industry analysis. “But right now, I would say the auto shows are confirming what we hoped for and what we expected.”

Sometimes, decisions based at least partially on auto show feedback can backfire. Take the case of the Lincoln Blackwood pickup. The plush, black truck drew “oohs” and “ahhs” at the Detroit show several years ago, but “oh, no” from consumers once Ford put it up for sale.

“The functionality wasn’t there,” Mays said of the Blackwood. “That’s why we came back with the Mark LT (pickup) this year. It has all the spangly, luscious chrome you could possibly want and has the functionality.”

Auto show feedback to a previous concept vehicle called the Equator, influenced the redesign of Ford’s most important vehicle, the F-150 pickup. “That was the first signal high interiors are a good investment for pickups and went right to work on that,” Mays said.

In gathering consumer information at the show, methods vary from traditional questionnaires to a more subtle approach that emphasizes responding to consumer requests for information and using the nature of their requests — do they want a brochure or a test drive? — to gauge interest, or lack of it, in a product.

Consumers’ names, addresses and phone numbers are added to a database of possible sales prospects.

On Thursday, Chris Lane and fellow Detroit firefighters Jeff Gadde and Dereck Tharpe approached new product support staffer Denise Crownover for more information about the Mustang.

She answered their questions and quickly gathered their contact information and comments, entering them into her personal digital assistant.

“We’ll send literature to the customers, help set up test drives,” said Crownover, who works for an agency contracted by Ford. “We collect the information every day and send it to Ford.”

Dealers send sales personnel to staff information desks to answer questions and take names.

“I’ll invite them into the dealership or for a test drive,” said Ken Johnson, a salesman at Ed Schmid Ford in Ferndale, who manned an information desk at the Ford display.

In just its second year of performing auto show research, Kia is sticking to consumer questionnaires regarding its concept vehicles.

“We start out with how interesting the concept is to them,” Anderson said, “and then delve into more details regarding styling and whether the vehicle would be suitable for that person’s needs.”

Not every automaker finds consumer research at the North American International Auto Show useful.

DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, for one, does not formally gather sentiment about its products at the show. The automaker is interested in general consumer reaction to its products in Detroit and at other shows.

“We don’t do research there because we can’t control the sampling,” spokesman James Kenyon said. “Many consumers come predisposed to a vehicle or brand or type of vehicle.”

That may be so, but University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacchi believes the auto show does present some valuable, nonscientific consumer insight.

“At the very worst, it gives you questions, issues to pursue with meaningful research,” Bernacchi said. “It’s every bit as good as a focus group.”

(Photo)Auto show visitors look over the new Ford Mustang, with a video playing in the background. Negative comments about vehicles can lead to tweaking the design.
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