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Is Alfa really ready to come back to the USA?

My visit to the Alfa Museum really got me thinking about the upcoming re-entry to the US market that Alfa Romeo is planning. I have heard rumors that in 2011 we will have new Alfas here on our shores again.  I for one am elated by this.  2010 is Alfa’s centennial year.  They can look back on a whole century of remarkable cars that are notable not only for their stunning design but also for their technical originality.  Today, they have a really strong product line of desirable cars.  But despite this, my visit to the Alfa Museum and to Milan made me wonder if Alfa is really ready for prime time.  Let me explain.

The museum is a shrine to which any car lover should make a pilgrimage.  The place is filled to the brim with exciting and rare machines, all of them extremely special.  So I want to emphasize I am not putting the museum down in the least.  It was like visiting the crown jewels.  The place is very quiet and has a sort of time warp feel, as if you are in the 70s or 80s when museum exhibits were all about cool artifacts with simple graphic text boards. There is no interactive media other than the cars themselves.  Since there are no barriers and no guards you can go right up and look at them in total detail.  You can poke your head through the open window of a car and smell 70 year old leather and the faint scent of castor oil.  Paradise.

But the trouble around this automotive Eden is that the building itself is in a nondescript corner of a decaying industrial zone.  The museum is approached via an overgrown parking lot and a worn looking concrete guard booth.  You then continue on foot past a seemingly vacant office tower to the entrance of the actual museum, which is an attractive but dated modernist concrete structure.  I had visited this museum ten years ago, and read that it had been recently renovated for Alfa’s 100th anniversary. But honestly, other than the cars changing places a bit, I can’t really tell you what they changed.  But I liked it the way it was anyway.

In contrast, the museums of the German companies like BMW, Mercedes and VW/ Audi are glittering temples of company history, with gift shops full of posters and cool branded merchandise with which to remember your special visit. And when you step outside, you see the future of the company around you. Modern glass office towers and factory buildings by renowned architects show you that this company has come a long way, and has a long way to go in the future.  When you leave the Alfa museum, you look at the vacant 70’s office tower and the overgrown parking lots surrounded by rusting fences and you can’t help but think “this company’s glory days are behind it.” It was a very sad thought, believe me.  I said as much to the Italian language interpreter I was with during my business trip and she said “This is not just Alfa you are talking about.  It is Italy.  We have been in decline since the end of the Roman Empire!  There is no future here.  All of our best companies are owned by foreign conglomerates.  Fashion is the only business we can still be proud of.”

The Alfa museum reflects a very Italian business sensibility that eschews crass commercialism and is geared toward a small, knowledgeable audience of connoisseurs.  I personally ate it up.  But if this is how the company showcases itself, how will they woo new American customers and put up with the blistering competition from Germany and Japan?  Alfa seems tone deaf to marketing even within its own native country and city.  When you get off the plane in Detroit, there is a GM Store. When you arrive in Milwaukee, there is a Harley Davidson Store in the airport.  But not only is there no Alfa Romeo boutique at Malpensa airport, there isn’t a single place in the whole city of Milan, which is Alfa’s home town, where Alfisti can go to connect to the brand (trust me, I looked!).  Yet there is a Mercedes concept store right across from the original Prada store in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a historic mall which is the most popular tourist shopping destination in the city.  Talk about a missed opportunity. 

Alfa’s compatriots at Ferrari, however, have gotten the message that they are not just in the car business.  They have a 4 story flagship store near the Galleria that blew me away (There is also a smaller one at Malpensa).  I have to say I found the merchandise overpriced, and I also think they have gone too far into the crass commercialism realm when they have Ferrari baby shoes and a Ferrari branded laptop and mouse that must come from the worst OEM in all of mainland China.  But nonetheless, they seem to be one of the few Italian brands able to go beyond their core product competency to build a larger branding landscape, which is essential for any 21st century company.  If Alfa can’t even do this in their home town, how can they compete in the crowded US market where most people have never heard of them, and most who have remember them for unreliable cars and poor customer service?

 If they play their cards right, they might just have a chance with people like me, who are too young to have been part of the car-buying public back when they were in US before.  They really need to target the young near-luxury car buyers, and they can do this with the new MiTo.  But they need to inspire a vision of the future, educate people about the past, and connect with consumers on multiple planes. No tired rehashing of “The Graduate” will do.  I am pointing all this out not just because I was frustrated at my inability to find a place to buy an Alfa T-shirt, but because I think that the way a company presents itself is indicative of their outlook and their confidence.  And Alfa’s outlook seems to be rather unfocused.  It’s simply not enough to just build great cars anymore.  Let’s hope that Alfa gets it right with their US launch and will last yet another 100 years of making special cars for the cuore sportivo.

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