SEMA News—August 2015

By Mike Imlay

Show Vehicles

Getting the Optimal Exposure for Your Products
 Show Vehicles SEMA News
Manufacturers continue to find Show vehicles essential to promoting their brand, from booth vehicles to those displayed in featured areas of the SEMA Show. The key strategy is to draw buyers into a conversation with your company about the products showcased on the builds.

While trade events and large automotive gatherings such as the upcoming SEMA Show in November offer manufacturers unparalleled opportunities to introduce products to hungry buyers, they also present a challenge. How does a company break out and get noticed amid a sea of competitors and busy floor activity? For many companies, the answer is a show or project vehicle—which can not only grab attention at the Show but continue holding it long after if done right.

“Our SEMA Show research indicates that a significant percentage of buyers are attracted to an exhibitor’s booth because of a vehicle,” said Tom Gattuso, SEMA trade shows director. “It’s arguably one of the best ways to showcase your new product.”

In a world where seeing is believing, a show vehicle has a unique ability to instantly convey a product’s application and excite imagination. That said, show vehicles need to be well thought out.

“You really have to boil down your strategy at the Show,” Gattuso said. “A vehicle takes up a lot of space. You need to prioritize your product in a direct application on a car versus the space that it takes up. Could you promote the same message with a video, knowledgeable salespeople and engineers or a stand-alone product display? Or is the application of your product best seen on a vehicle? If a picture is worth a thousand words, is your product on a vehicle worth 10,000?”

Gattuso emphasized that the ultimate goal of a display vehicle is to draw buyers into a direct conversation with your company. He noted that the SEMA Show presents exhibitors with two options if a manufacturer determines that a display vehicle is indeed right for them: booth vehicles and feature vehicles.

As the term implies, a booth vehicle resides in a company’s exhibit space. A feature vehicle can be displayed in other designated venues throughout the Show and may make more sense to a smaller company with limited booth space.

“It comes down to return on investment for smaller companies,” explained Gattuso. “If you make the assumption that a smaller company is just starting out and does not yet have a groundswell of support for its product, the minimum space a car can take is about 200 sq. ft. That’s about the equivalent of $4,000 worth of space, so is there enough return on having a car in that $4,000 space, or could you place your product on a feature vehicle, save that money and better use the savings toward promoting your booth to buyers around the Show?”

Project Vehicles

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A ’14 Ford GT graced the MagnaFlow booth at last year’s SEMA Show. OEMs expect a strong proposal heavy on realistic design and year-long promotion when awarding their latest and greatest vehicle platforms to aftermarket companies for project builds.

Whether in their booths or in featured areas of the Show, many companies eager to display their brands on newer OEM cars and trucks opt for a build made possible through project-vehicle programs offered by major automakers. This year, Ford, GM and Honda have all actively promoted their “dollar vehicles” to qualified SEMA-member builders under various specified terms.

“Our project-vehicle program is a great way for both Ford and aftermarket companies to showcase how production vehicles can be modified to meet individual tastes,” said Sherry Kollien, an aftermarket support group supervisor in Ford’s global product planning and strategy division. “The goal is to display a wide variety of modified themes to engage consumers in how they can personalize their vehicles. In order to participate in the program, however, builders have expectations to meet in return for receiving a vehicle they modify and then can keep after the contract has ended. One thing we’d like to dispel is the idea that you’re going to get a vehicle, put some paint, wheels and tires on it, take it to the SEMA Show and then just drive it away. There’s a lot of integrity to our program and how we promote our products. This is a partnership.”

In fact, getting a project vehicle from any OEM is often a detailed and competitive process. Automakers universally require builders to submit a proposal that can include such items as an introductory letter summarizing the vehicle theme and overall project; an accurate, realistic vehicle rendering; a build timeline; a detailed list of the modifications, upgrades, products and sponsorships involved; and a display and promotion plan for the SEMA Show and beyond, including social and mainstream media, print exposure and appearances at other events. Of course, the proposal must also conform to program guidelines set down by the OEMs, often including the acceptance of the federal, state and local taxes and fees associated with receiving a discounted vehicle.

“The goal of the program is to promote personalizing a vehicle beyond the dealership,” said Kollien. “The promotional plans can range from grassroots regional shows like the Fabulous Ford car show at Knott’s Berry Farm to a builder that takes his project vehicle on tour with his company rig. There are a lot of builders who have great rapport with various magazines. We like it when their project vehicle gets editorial or a cover in a popular auto enthusiast magazine.”

When determining who gets a vehicle, OEMs pay close attention to whether a design can be faithfully executed in real life, both artistically and engineering-wise. While innovative concepts may catch an OEM’s eye, wild proposals with renderings that drastically alter brand recognition or go too far beyond the practical means of the average consumer or vehicle enthusiast are generally not chosen.

“The goal to the project-vehicle program and being so heavily involved with the aftermarket is to showcase what the builder can do with a vehicle to increase that vehicle line’s sales. Over the years, I’ve seen renderings come in from the typical art-school design ssketches all the way up to Photoshopped renderings,” said Kollien. “The key to a successful proposal is a real-life-looking rendering so we know what the vehicle will look like when completed. Photoshopped renderings are pretty much standard now. We still have some people who do old-school-style sketches, but they do great sketches. Whatever style rendering you choose to submit, make sure it looks realistic.”

Along with unrealistic renderings, Kollien cites not having an adequately detailed proposal and project outline as another common pitfall for project-vehicle applicants.

“We’re not asking for a term paper, but we would like to see some thought put into the proposal,” she advised. “Also, when including a summary of past project builds, proposal submitters should make sure to state whether they were the builder or product sponsor.”

Obviously, a successful partnership with an OEM for a project vehicle can be a win-win for both the automaker and an aftermarket company. However, not every company is ready to sponsor a project vehicle of its own. Fortunately, manufacturers also have the option of approaching builders to merely place their products on project vehicles as well. Plus, there is always the opportunity to partner with builders creating Show vehicles independent of OEM build programs.

Marketing Innovation

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Whether a newer project vehicle from an OEM or a classic build, display vehicles at the SEMA Show are most successful when showcasing the new products that buyers are hungry for. Be sure to have a media and events plan to continue touring and promoting the vehicle long after the Show.

“I believe that display vehicles have helped our company in multiple ways,” said Bryan Baker, director of sales and marketing for A.R.E., a SEMA-member manufacturer of truck caps and related accessories. “The builds we choose help establish and strengthen our brand image, because they represent who we are. They also naturally create many media opportunities for us. On top of that, they can lead to and showcase improvements and innovations.”

When it comes to vehicle builds, the Massillon, Ohio-based company pursues a multi-prong strategy.

“We strive to partner with one truck manufacturer annually on a build,” explained Baker. “Additionally, we try to partner with the best vehicle builders that will maximize our exposure and fit our image. We were featured on 25 or more vehicles each year in 2013 and 2014. It helps us to reach the pickup-truck enthusiast in a positive way.”

When it comes to finding qualified builders, some companies go in search of them, while others prefer to let the builders come to them. Like many other companies, A.R.E. tackles the opportunities from both directions.

“There is a lot of networking involved,” Baker said. “Builders that have done a great job for us in the past move to the top of the list for future builds because the trust has been established. The last three trucks that A.R.E. has built, we’ve worked exclusively with Trent’s Trick Trucks to help us lead the project. He does an amazing job.

“For the most part, it’s about exposure. Will the truck be prominently displayed at the SEMA Show? What other shows will it be at? Will it receive press in printed media and online? How strong of a social-media presence the build will have and the builders’ reputation for [how they treat] their partners both play key roles in the decision.”

SEMA-member company MagnaFlow, based in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, also includes show vehicles as a key element of its marketing strategy for its performance exhaust products.

“Building SEMA Show vehicles is the backbone of the Show,” explained Kathryn Reinhardt, the company’s marketing manager. “All of the attendees are there to see customized vehicles built with aftermarket parts. MagnaFlow specifically partners with builders that use MagnaFlow exhaust components in order to help demonstrate the product at the booth, show off the new products and create press conferences at the booth to unveil new show vehicles.”

Like A.R.E., MagnaFlow chooses its builders carefully.

“We have a long history with most of the MagnaFlow partners,” Reinhardt said. “From Chip Foose to Bodie Stroud, we work with key builders who not only endorse the MagnaFlow product but also use the product to create under-car works of art. We are always open to any builder who is looking for an exhaust partner, but we make sure that their desires and functionality are in line with the performance of the MagnaFlow brand.”

Show Vehicles SEMA News
Branding by association is another key strategy for smart manufacturers who go to great efforts to appear on show vehicles alongside other quality aftermarket names in harmony with their brand image.

Smart companies extend that philosophy to the other brands that will appear alongside theirs on a vehicle build. Birds of a feather flock together, so association with other high-profile companies and their products naturally preserves a quality image for all. In fact, said Gattuso, many companies make the mistake of “branding” their products indiscriminately around the SEMA Show on a variety of vehicles that don’t truly fit their company image.

“You want to be grouped with other companies that you feel merit representation in the same arena as your product,” he emphasized. “Although there’s a clear distinction between your own booth vehicle and featured vehicles throughout the Show, you need to treat them almost the same. You wouldn’t want your brand represented on a car that you wouldn’t put in your booth. Treat featured vehicles as strategic extensions to your booth. When people are walking around and the media are taking pictures of the Show, you want to make sure that your product is seen on vehicles that you’re proud of.”

At A.R.E., Baker underscoreed the importance of strategic alliances.

“There is a group of us [companies] that work together as a team to partner up to support builds that we feel fit our goals,” he said. “Rigid Industries and N-Fab are two of many companies that we love to work with.”

In addition, Gattuso has specific advice for which products a company should showcase on display vehicles.

“Our surveys tell us that 89% of the buyers who come to the Show are trying to find new products,” he said. “A good percentage are attracted to a Show vehicle, so having your new products on a vehicle is a good way to get it recognized. But the heart of everything you do at the SEMA Show should revolve around new products, because that’s what the buyers are looking for. If you’re trying to decide which of your products to feature on a vehicle, always skew toward your newest products.”

In the end, Baker said, show vehicles have been well worth the thought and effort, delivering dividends in brand awareness.

“Our personal builds receive a great deal of exposure,” he explained. “We try for media at all levels, including shows, magazines, Internet, social media and videos. Our most recent build was featured on the cover of Trucking Times and DUB’s Lftd&Lvld. We also prominently promote the builds in our literature, on our website, on point-of-purchase displays and our own social media.”

Like many, Reinhardt views show vehicles as more than exercises in marketing.

“Builders are like artists,” she said. “They all have individual styles. MagnaFlow likes to provide each builder with product that is complementary to the vehicle build. Sometimes that can require customization that opens up new innovation and design. We enjoy working with our builders. They dream it, and we create it.”

SEMA Battle of the Builders

Battle of the Builders SEMA News
The SEMA Battle of the Builders, which culminates on a live stage at SEMA Ignited at the close of the SEMA Show, offers member companies an ideal way to extend the brand reach of their car builds to a wider consumer audience.

If you’re building a SEMA Show vehicle or otherwise participating in a project build, consider entering it in the SEMA Cruise, SEMA Ignited and the SEMA Battle of the Builders to expand your brand reach.

“We’ve created these events to help brands live on with the general public after the trade-only SEMA Show draws to a close,” said Tom Gattuso, SEMA trade shows director. “Even if you aren’t building a vehicle yourself, you can still find a builder who’s competing for the SEMA Battle of the Builders and include your product on their vehicle. Leveraging their participation in SEMA Ignited and the Battle of the Builders television program is a great way to get more exposure for your product and company.”

Inaugurated last year, the SEMA Battle of the Builders pits some of the nation’s most talented car builders and customizers against one another in a friendly but spirited competition to see their creations named best of the SEMA Show. Open to all vehicle builds, the 2014 contest boasted more than 125 participants, from which an elite 10 finalists were chosen by a panel of top automotive journalists. Those finalists then voted among themselves to determine the winner at SEMA Ignited, a public event featuring hundreds of customized vehicles with the latest and greatest products from the SEMA Show. The finalists were also featured in a one-hour television special airing multiple times on the Velocity Network.

With the Battle of the Builders returning for the 2015 SEMA Show, all builders of display, feature and booth vehicles are encouraged to enter the fray.

“And if you’re a new company trying to find builders, it makes sense to look at participants from last year’s Battle of the Builders to see what they’re doing this year,” added Gattuso. “Also it’s a good idea to network with your local industry to find builders who may be interested in the contest.”

To learn more, see a list of last year’s Battle of the Builders contestants and their vehicles, and enter this year’s competition, visit

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