The idea that a car sells the brand doesn’t apply in the expansive world of Olivier Francois, Chrysler/Fiat’s chief marketing officer.
It’s the brand and its message that ultimately sells the car, Francois told the Automotive Press Association in Detroit. A lot of companies use cars to sell the brand but Francois has deliberately reversed the equation.
“The brand had better stand for something,” explained the French-born executive, noting he uses the exact same formula in Europe where he is in charge of the Fiat and Lancia marques.
Francois also stressed that timing is critical. Chrysler’s celebrated Eminem ad, which was shown during the Super Bowl in February,2011, would not have worked a year earlier because there wasn’t any solid evidence yet of a Chrysler comeback. A year later it would have been considered “old news,” he added.
While denying the controversial Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood had any kind of a political message, it was devised to capitalize on the fact the political races were part of the every day conversation in the US.
Francois added he watched the ad play on the Super Bowll telecast in a pizza place in the Detroit suburbs and knew the Eastwood ad had an enormous impact by watching the reaction of the noisy crowd, which went silent as the ad played. He knew going in Eastwood would command respect that made the ad memorable, he said.
Francois doesn’t dismiss the idea car ads should feature the product but they also should have some underlying message and emotion. “Advertising in Europe is much more emotional,” said the Chrysler CMO, who stressed that he trusts his gut instinct more than consumer research, which he dismisses as something of a crutch.
“When you are a French guy in at Italian company working in Detroit, there is a culture shock,” said Francois, who during his first visit to Detroit spent a weekend holed up in a hotel room watching CSI episodes and commercials.
What he discovered was the local appeal of vinyl windows, the critical role of cupholders, as well as making sure any price offer ended in nine, added Francois, who joked he later put that lesson to work during negotiations with Eminem.
“People said, ‘How did you get him? What did you offer him,’” Francois recalled. “We I offered him new vinyl windows, a bigger cupholder and a great lease deal.”
So far Francois’ efforts are paying dividends for Chrysler. “Consideration” by potential buyers is up, sales are up and the buzz surrounding the company has helped lift it above the political squabbling that still surrounds General Motors, which also went through bankruptcy with government help back in 2009.
Skeptics, however, might question the assumption that the brand – and the marketing – are first and foremost. That’s a tune sung a decade earlier by former General Motors brand czar Ron Zarrella. And it ultimately failed to reverse GM’s steady decline in sales and share – or head of its slide into bankruptcy. The bigger maker ultimately reversed course, hiring automotive legend Bob Lutz to help restore the focus on product.
But Chrysler officials aren’t dismissing the role of product – Olivier underscored that during a separate appearance, earlier this month, at the Geneva Motor Show where he unveiled the new 500L, a stretched 4-door version of the Fiat 500.
The Italian brand got off to a slow start last year, sales only reaching half the original estimate. Francois now believes it should gain momentum as more variants of the 500 are rolled out, along with the 500L. But he also stresses that marketing the brand will be essential, no matter what the product.
And he can point to the numbers to support his case. Since launching a controversial ad campaign with pop star Jennifer Lopez last year, awareness of the Fiat brand has risen sharply, and sales momentum has surged this year with the debut of two edgy TV spots. The first, a racy pitch for the 500 Abarth edition featuring exotic supermodel Catrinel Menghia, aired during the Super Bowl. She was joined by Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen in a second spot. Whether product or marketing, Fiat sales have surged since the beginning of the year.
Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.
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