Coronavirus causes automakers to rethink debuts of Ford Bronco, GMC Hummer EV and others

Key Points
  • Automakers are scrambling to decide how and when to launch highly-anticipated products this year following the cancellation of auto shows and other events.
  • The cancellations have created a backlog of products for automakers to unveil ahead of the vehicles arriving in showrooms in the coming months.
  • Many automakers have switched from in-person reveals to pre-taped online events, while some are taking other unique approaches.

In this article

Tim Kuniskis, head of Fiat Chrysler's passenger cars division in North America, reveals the 2021 Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat SUV during an online event on July 2, 2020.

Automakers are scrambling to decide how and when to launch highly anticipated new cars and trucks now that the coronavirus pandemic has forced organizers of some of world's biggest annual auto shows to cancel into 2021 and beyond. 

Automakers spend millions of dollars a year on debuting new vehicles – from elaborate launches and displays at auto shows to private previews for wing journalists, dealers, owners and social media influencers. The goal is to produce hype and demand for a vehicle before it arrives in showrooms.

"Awareness is so key. If somebody doesn't know about a vehicle in the showroom then they don't know to go to the showroom for that vehicle," said Rick Deneau, head of communications for Fiat Chrysler's brands, sales, marketing, engineering and quality in North America. "It's pretty simple how that goes."

The event cancellations have created a backlog of auto debuts , including a new product lineup from Dodge's SRT performance unit that was unveiled Thursday afternoon.

Ford just unveiled its 2021 tech-savvy pickup—Here's what's new
Ford just unveiled its 2021 tech-savvy pickup—Here's what's new

Other highly anticipated vehicle debuts were canceled this spring, include General Motors' all-electric GMC Hummer pickup and the Bronco SUV family from Ford Motor.

Costs of such cancellations can add up but, more importantly, they can shorten the amount of time automakers have to garner attention for their products.

"The schedule is thrown off," said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. "We didn't have a New York auto show, we didn't have a Detroit auto show. And we have cars that are still going on sale and automakers need to communicate that these are coming … they need to get people excited about them and the traditional delivery for that content is gone."

GM declined to saywhen it will unveil the Hummer, however, given the vehicle isn't set to go into production until next fall, the company has some time to figure it out. Others automakers such as Ford don't have that luxury as vehicles such as the Bronco SUVs and Ford F-150 – its most important product – are due in showrooms later this year and into early-next.

GM revives the Hummer as an electric truck
GM revives the Hummer as an electric truck


Ford, which has a slate of debuts this year,  has been forced to embrace alternative ways to unveil vehicles more than other automakers.

The automaker launched the 2021 Ford F-150 last week during a pre-taped event hosted by actor Denis Leary, a former pitchman for the truck. It's also set to reveal its new "Ford Bronco 4x4 family" later this month.

"The challenge that marketers face right now is that all of these reveals could look and feel the same," Matt VanDyke, director of Ford U.S. marketing, told CNBC. "I think that as an industry we're going to have to really think about how we don't let them all kind of become the same. We were really cognizant of that with Bronco. We really wanted to do something special."

Ford debuted the 2021 Ford F-150 during a pre-taped event June 26 hosted by actor Denis Leary (right), a former pitchman for the truck.

Ford will unveil its new Bronco lineup July 13 across Disney's media networks, including ABC, ESPN, National Geographic and Hulu. Ford worked with Disney CreativeWorks, the company's creative agency, to create custom three-minute videos for each network to debut the vehicles.

"We're really optimistic this will be a unique way to do it," VanDyke said.

Ford has changed the date of the Bronco unveiling at least three times. Two in-person reveals earlier this spring, including one for the Detroit auto show, were canceled due to Covid-19. An online July 8 debut also was postponed due to controversy about the event coincidentally coinciding with O.J. Simpson's birthday.

Online reveals

Officials that plan reveals for automakers say there are cost and logistical benefits to doing them online. But it also takes away from allowing people to physically touch and look inside the vehicles like they would at an auto show or private event.

Many automakers in recent years have been holding livestream events with a live audience to expand their reach.

2021 Kia K5

"We've been working in the past on more encompassing reveals," said Joe Jacuzzi, GM executive director of brand and product communications. "We've been kind of going in this direction for some time.

"Not that that's necessarily to replace a physical reveal, but certainly the opportunity presents itself for a much wider audience where we're able to reach out to our customers and dealers alike."

The Bentley Bentayga luxury SUV, Nissan Rogue crossover, Kia K5 sedan and Audi e-tron Sportback concept crossover will all be revealed online. Other scheduled vehicle debuts include a new electric crossover called Ariya from Nissan Motor and GM's luxury Cadillac brand unveiling an all-electric crossover called Lyriq.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, automakers were already reconsidering how they unveil vehicles. Many had moved away from debuting a vehicle at an auto show. They instead would hold a private event and livestream it online for the public to view. Some expect that to continue when a "new normal is established."

2021 Nissan Rogue

"For some of these products that are shifting to online reveals, it may prove that's just as effective. But for some products that need to make a bigger splash and that are more important in terms of volume and profitability and the changes are bigger, they may find that they still wish they had a bigger venue to be held in to reveal these," IHS Markit's Brinley said.

The only large-scale domestic auto show remaining for this year is in Los Angeles in November. Johnathan Lowe, chief marketing officer of the show, told CNBC that organizers are in "full planning mode, including the development of proper protocols and procedures for the show."