The end of an era?

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A recent announcement from Ford yesterday took me right back to my earliest automotive memories, and produced decidedly mixed feelings for me.

My father worked for a pharmaceutical company and drove a company car. GM products, always GM products. I remember the brown Chevrolet Caprice, the silver Oldsmobile Delta 88, the Buick LeSabre, and many others.

My first encounter with each of these cars happened the same way. At our kitchen table.

Dad would bring home a glossy brochure from the dealership, and I would pore over the pages. I loved it. The photography was beautiful. I would happily get lost in the tables comparing the features of different trim levels. My Dad and I would debate the merits of different option packages, and together we would plan the vehicle that would be our family car for the next three years.

I grew up in Montreal, and the start of the new year always meant the same thing to me. The car show! I would head downtown in early January and explore the show, always returning home with a couple of bags filled with new vehicle brochures. Luxury cars, ordinary everyday cars, all of them. Those brochures made all the cars look beautiful. I remember a picture of a British racing green Mini (the original Mini, not the new one) that got cut out and lived on my bulletin board for years. One of many.

What brings all this to mind is the announcement that Ford and Lincoln in Canada will no longer be producing printed brochures. A very environmentally-focused message highlights the savings in wood, water and energy that comes from going purely digital. Moving forward, customers will have to use the online vehicle configurator to playfully compare trim levels like I did with my Dad. Of course it can still happen at the kitchen table, thanks to laptops, smartphones, tablets and the rest.

All the same, it represents a passing of sorts, and one that I wanted to make note of. We can expect to see other manufacturers follow suit. I expect this will happen quite quickly. I’m not sure if Ford is the first, but I suspect they are the biggest player to make that decision to date.

As the vehicle configurators (build and price tools) on the OEM websites get better and more sophisticated, they certainly deliver a level of engagement and personalization that far exceed the standard printed brochure. At the same time, there are a few challenges that come to mind. For one, not every customer is going to want to engage that way. For some older customers, perhaps, the printed brochure would be the preferred tool. I recognize that this segment of customers is a minority now, and likely shrinking fast.

The larger issue that needs to be addressed is the still-often clumsy hand-off between the OEM build and price tool and the dealership website. While I may feel a bit nostalgic about the passing of the glossy new vehicle brochure, I get that it’s a business decision that makes sense. Now let’s make sure the digital pathway we’re putting customers on is a good one.

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