“Oh lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

Karl Benz is credited with inventing the first car with the creation of his Benz Patent Motorwagen in 1885. Karl was a brilliant inventor and engineer but he was also prone to bouts of self-doubt and depression, and would endlessly tinker with his cars, not wanting to promote them until they were absolutely perfect.

It was his wife, Bertha Benz, who really had the vision of how the car could transform the world. Bertha was not only a great supporter of Karl, but also an investor and a shrewd marketer. She understood that in order for the car to be a success, people had to actually see it run, and she knew her husband would never attempt anything more than the short test runs he’d been driving. Bertha knew something more dramatic was needed.

So in August 1886, without telling her husband and without the permission of the authorities, Bertha drove with her sons Richard and Eugen from Mannheim to Pforzheim—becoming the first person to drive an automobile over a significant distance.

Fortunately, Karl wasn’t too angry when Bertha returned home. The trip had been a huge success as a marketing stunt, and proved to be a useful test drive as well, prompting Karl to add new features and capabilities to the vehicle like a second gear and better brakes.

Suddenly everyone was talking about the incredible Benz Patent Motorwagen. Everyone in the region wanted to see and, more importantly, “experience” this new creation. Bertha had sparked a curiosity and love for the car that has been the backbone of an entire industry ever since.

So why do we love our cars so much?  Surely they are just a means of getting from A to B?

Wrong. Cars have a much more elevated place in our hearts and minds. Their makers want to be much more than just transport providers to us, their beloved customers. They want their products to play to our emotions, aspirations and desires. They shape our lifestyles. They sell dreams.

The 66th Frankfurt International Motor Show, which took place between September 17th and 27th 2015, attracted one million visitors and was the latest chance for the global automotive industry to seduce us and reinforce Bertha’s vision. However, this is no ordinary trade show.

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The stars of the show and their adoring audiences.  Photo credit: Matthew Stent

True to its heritage, the automotive industry puts on a show that is more rock concert than industry exhibition. Under glittering lights on elaborate sets, with pumping soundtracks, flanked by glamourous models and attentive assistants with polishing cloths and feather dusters, the cars are the stars. Deep crowds gather around each car, hoping for a chance to sit inside or be photographed next to their favourite car.

The automotive manufacturers deliver a brand experience that is rivalled only by Disney. It’s an all-encompassing assault on the senses, designed to take you from entering the show curious to see those new cars, right through to leaving utterly enthralled and desperately wanting one.

Put simply, the automotive industry has some of the strongest brands on the planet, and they know exactly how to leverage them to seduce their customers. It’s this brand experience and brand pull that the automotive manufacturers hope will help them weather a perfect storm that’s forming right around the next bend.

What’s brewing is a convergence between the automotive industry and the technology industry. Both have long been effective partners, working together to make cars ever more efficient, safer and secure. However, technology and, in particular, digital services look set to be the driving force of change in the automotive industry. These digital services are opening up new possibilities both within and around our cars, and not all of them are things that sit comfortably with the automotive manufacturers. As highlighted by the recent IBM Center for Applied Insights study, this is an industry on the verge of rapid and potentially disruptive change.

This change was evident at the Frankfurt IAA, as part of its New Mobility World hall where a new generation of companies, like Car2Go, MyTaxi, Moovel and Qixxit all vied for attention, trying to mobilise us in different ways with new digitally delivered services. Many of these services can potentially be delivered by another device that we more recently began a new love affair with – the smartphone.

The Future of the automotive industry
Digital Disruption and the future of the automotive industry http://ibm.co/1PAqFeE

It’s here that the future of the automotive industry gets foggy as two of the most celebrated inventions of modern man come head-to-head – mobile phone versus car. This battle is very much underway; every automotive manufacturer at IAA keenly showed off its in-car system’s compatibility with the Apple or Android devices in our pockets. How deep a role Apple and Google (the world’s two most powerful brands) and other digital service providers play in our automotive lives will shape the industry over the next few years. One thing is for sure though, the outcome will be decided by us – the consumers.

Over the coming years, automotive manufacturers will likely see just how strong their hold over us really is and may be forced to change their business models to adapt to new realities brought about by things like car-sharing programs, multi-modal travel provision and the holy grail of the industry –  “fully autonomous driving.” There may even be a whole host of as-yet-unimagined digital services just around the corner, which bring deeper disruption to automotive.

I wonder what Bertha would make of it all?

For now though, “my friends all drive Porsches, and I must make amends; oh lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz…”

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