August 18, 2011

How to Sell Cars with the 2011 Marketing Trifecta

Automobiles have always been a candidate for great, compelling advertising.  The vehicles we drive or want to drive make up more to our psyche than we know and more than we'd be honest enough to admit if we knew.  They shape every available emotion from security to coolness and the marketer's know that.  So when product sales aren't doing so well, what does any good auto marketer do?

They apply the Marketing Trifecta.

Step 1: Sell majority stake to an Italian company with a completely different approach to auto design

Step 2: Hire Weiden+Kennedy to create a great campaign using a hot celebrity; particularly one known for not doing celebrity promotions (Ps.  It doesn’t matter anymore if that celebrity identifies with your customer segments or uses your product.  Actually, you don’t really need a customer segment if you do Step 3)

Step 3: Spend boatloads of money for a coveted space in the SuperBowl ad lineup where you launch the campaign no one knew was coming

I’m partially playing up the sarcasm, but if you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m talking about Chrysler and the new Born of Fire ad and Imported from Detroit campaign that put this marquee back on the map in 2011.  Spare me the eyebrow raise when I say that Fiat was the best thing that happened to Chrysler post-bankruptcy . . .I’m going somewhere good with this.

Sedan 200 -- Larger than life grille
Fiat 500 -- 355cm long, 163cm wide, 149cm high
Courtesy of and

Or rather, shall I say Weiden + Kennedy and whoever came up with the Imported from Detroit campaign is the best thing that happened to Chrysler in 2011.

Let’s start from the beginning

After Chrysler’s chapter 11 bailout, the US government handed over 25% of the company to Italian owned Fiat, (think small, economy cars).  The agreement was part of a government-restructuring plan to help Chrysler become more competitive in an auto market that is trending towards economy cars and also provide Chrysler with Fiat's global distribution network in hopes of boosting global sales (which right now accounts for about only 10% of total car sales).  In turn, it gave Fiat access into a North American market it’s been unsuccessful at sustaining that Fiat's using to roll out the Fiat 500.  Fiat raised their stake in the Chrysler Group to 30% after satisfying additional sales goals, and in June, bought out the government’s stake in the company for $560M, getting the gov’ out of the picture and giving Fiat the majority ownership of an American company.  (Ps. This is not the first time the Chrysler has sold out to an overseas automaker; they did it back in 98 with Benz and PPs.  The government did lose money on this transaction, just fyi).   Pretty soon Chrysler models will be repackaged under the Lancia brand in Europe  -- who would of thought, Italians want bigger cars and American’s want smaller.

With this Chrysler-Fiat marriage came the addition of much talked about French executive Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer, to the line-up, the guy responsible for the Born of Fire ad and new Chrysler brand positioning

If you’re not familiar with Chrysler’s stand-out SuperBowl commercial starring Eminem that launched Chrysler’s new Imported from Detroit campaign and revamped auto-line and aired at a record 2:00 minute time check it out below:

The storyline is captivating -- local blue-collar white boy turned rap icon, Eminem, driving the city of industrial Detroit in the new Sedan 200 against the backdrop of one of his most famous songs, Lose Yourself.  The narrator leads us through a city that’s been dragged through its share of bad times yet still has the backbone to survive.  The ad ends with the heavy drama of a decorated gospel choir, Eminem’s magic vocal touch, and the final pan of the heart tugging Imported from Detroit tagline embedded in the Chrysler emblem.

The campaign is nothing short of a Made in America campaign supported by strategic celebrity promotion aiming to excite more interest in a domestic company/brand and locally made products amidst a shaken economy.  It’s a poignant piece of advertising that works and works well in creating brand buzz.  And using Eminem not only provides celebrity appeal but also acts as a rising from the ashes phoenix metaphor for Chrysler and the Chrysler brands (and some might even say, the entire US economy).  In the end, whether or not you care about cars or Chrysler, you have to admit, the melodrama moves you just slightly.

What I wanted to know was, can captivating advertising really sell cars?

When I looked into the Chrysler's reported monthly sales results since the campaign launched in February it's almost obvious that captivating advertising did sell cars judging by the huge spike in demand (203% to be exactly from the previous month).  Sales have continued to grow ever since but starting in July, a downward trend looks like it may be in swing.  No doubt, Chrysler’s recent no money down for 90 days promotion will help out those sales numbers just in time for the moms and dads of America to send off their kids to college in a new, "cute" Fiat.

Here’s where I’m confused.

When you look at the Imported from Detroit Campaign and the celebrities along with it -- rapper Eminem with the Born of Fire Ad, football star Ndamukong Suh with the Pride of Detroit, and now with the Sedan 300, Dr. Dre -- you’d assume Chrysler was aiming to target certain segments (as well as a solely male audience, but that’s another side of consumer behavior and purchasing that I’ll get into at another time). However, when I look at the Sedan 200 and especially the 300 compared to what I know about the projected target audience, I’m not really sure I can peg down who’s buying these cars that’s contributing to the current increase in sales.

When I saw one up close the other day, I couldn’t envision anyone but a salesman behind the wheel.  But the numbers don’t lie; someone's buying these cars.  Do the historic, typical Chrysler buyers now identify with these musical icons and therefore, the recent shift in the sales needle?  Hardly not I would say.  So has Chrysler managed to make a demographic switch to a new audience in a world of Audis and Volkswagons?  Has Chrysler, like a phoenix, really emerged from the ch. 11 ashes as a cooler, luxury car?  And do we have the Italians or the Frenchman to thank for it?

Arguably, Chrysler's campaign is one of the best auto campaigns we'll see this year.  I still think it stopped short at what it really could have done and my bet is that when the patriotism and luxury spin gets old and no one cares where it’s “Imported from”, Chrysler will again have to redefine the brand image.  It goes without saying though that Chrysler needed the marketing trifecta to get it out of the ground.  Anything short would’ve been a whimper in the auto market. Even though this strategy has proved successful in 2011, I'm curious if it's going to be sustainable as more and more consumers get more educated on what’s going on behind the manufacturing scenes, automakers innovate to become more fuel efficient, and the import market gains speed again.  (Oh and by the way, it still has a rather unappealing grille and front design if you ask me, you can only fake cool for so long).

An American-Fiat marriage may not sound like the precursor to an Imported from Detroit tagline, but you can now understand when I say Fiat might have been the best thing of recent to happen to Chrysler, or at least this year’s financial statements.  It will be interesting to see if the product improvements stand behind the campaign’s new proposition because at the end of the day that’s what really creates brand equity. For future car designs . . . well, we’ll just have to wait and see what a Chrysler-Fiat DNA mix will look like.

Imported from Detroit . . . er, Canada, I mean, Italy . .

Goes Well with B's Jazzed Up Burgers and the Soundtrack I'd design a car commercial with if I could design a car commerical (you have to wait past 2:00 min. to know what I mean)

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