January 15, 2013

News & Features

Chrysler marketing chief generates buzz

Detroit Free Press

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Olivier Francois, at his office at Chrysler, is known for his creative ads. (Kathleen Galligan / MCT direct)

In a scene that could have come from the television series "Mad Men" — except Don Draper didn't have the large flat-screen monitor — Olivier Francois is puffing on a cigarette and reaching for a mouse to unleash a blitz of images.

Rather than a collage of retro scenes from the 1960s, the screen fills with Eminem, Clint Eastwood and Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia mixed with the Dodge Dart, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Fiat 500 and other cars.

"There are 12 commercials here. Twelve," Francois says of the video mash-up. "And there is, unexpectedly, a kind of consistency. It works."

Most of the commercials Francois and his team have crafted stay with most viewers like a vivid dream. They've certainly made people talk. The 2011 Super Bowl spot with Eminem and the Selected of God choir triggered a wave of Motown pride.

A year later, Eastwood delivered his "Halftime in America" pep talk emerging from the shadows.

"We find a way through tough times, and if we can't find it, we make one," grunted the master of grit.

Conservative pundits dismissed it as an endorsement of President Barack Obama's auto bailout. But no one forgot it. Chrysler's marketing has come a long way from the days of Lee Iacocca strolling on a factory floor surrounded by the latest models, delivering the kicker, "And if you can find a better car, buy it."

Francois, a 51-year-old Frenchman and Chrysler's chief marketer since Fiat took control, is an unlikely messenger. But he comes to the art of selling cars with fresh eyes, at least from the traditional American perspective. He rejects marketing that dwells on features and price.

"I was really very shocked by this when I [first] turned on the TV [in the U.S.] — this bombardment of features, incentives, MPGs and prices ending in 99," Francois says. "I prefer selling cars through a brand rather than selling a brand through its cars."

In December, Adweek named Francois its Grand Brand Genius for 2012, chosen from among 10 finalists. Advertising Age, a competing publication, named him Marketer of the Year.

"I frankly think that what they have done is brilliant," says Tim O'Day, executive director of the Yaffe Center for Persuasive Communication at the University of Michigan. He gives Chrysler an A-plus for the 2011 "Imported from Detroit" Super Bowl spot. He is less enthusiastic about the 2012 ad with Eastwood.

"I am glad they continue to swing for the fences, but to me, the commercials you see from Chrysler, even today, harken back to the Eminem ad," O'Day says.

Francois, who joined Chrysler in 2009 from Fiat, where he headed the Lancia brand, has generated buzz for Chrysler's brands by defying conventional rules and taking risks.

Sometimes, the risks flop.

In 2011, Francois' commercials for the Fiat 500 with Jennifer Lopez were panned by critics who found it hard to believe the megastar would ever drive a small, affordably priced car that barely had room for her purse in back. Lopez herself took heat from other celebrities after she performed on stage at the 2011 American Music Awards with a Fiat 500.

For Francois, it was the exposure that mattered. "Maybe there are a lot of people who don't like her," Francois says. "That is not my problem."

Francois says Lopez helped Fiat quadruple its brand awareness and points out that Forbes named Lopez the No. 1 most influential celebrity last May.

To be sure, Chrysler and its brands — Dodge, Jeep and Ram — still have a long way to go. The percentage of visitors shopping for a car in October on Edmunds.com that checked out any of Chrysler's models was 9.2 percent, up just 1 percent from October 2009. And even as Chrysler's sales have increased for 31 consecutive months, the namesake brand is outsold by Kia, Volkswagen and Subaru in the U.S.

Francois measures success by sales and feedback from dealers. "According to the last survey I have seen, we have the highest dealer satisfaction when it comes to marketing," says Francois.

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