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The French automobile brand Citroën originated in 1919 when industrialist Andre-Gustave Citroën converted a World War I munitions factory into an auto plant. Mr. Citroën imported U.S. assembly-line manufacturing methods and developed a communication strategy that set the standard for automotive marketers for the next century.

He placed his first ads in the French press early in 1919, before he began to produce his Type A model. The half-page ad featured a drawing of the three-seat Type A, details on optional configurations and a base price. It also promoted the brand, highlighting the Citroën name and the double chevron logo.

When the company had trouble meeting consumer demand in the early days, Mr. Citroën pushed forward with his promotion strategy. He placed detailed page ads throughout the French press. Industry experts credit Mr. Citroën with helping invent "prelaunch" advertising.

Mr. Citroën's early mass-circulation print ads from Paris agency Wallace & Draeger promoted the automobile as a practical and economical form of transportation offering the freedom of the open road. The campaigns broke new ground in several respects, from putting a woman behind the wheel of a snazzy convertible to associating Citroën's cars with seemingly contrary adjectives: "Both breadwinner and joy-bringer," read one tagline.

While the agency's approach bore fruit, Citroën moved advertising in-house in 1920. Pierre Louys, a 24-year-old former medical student, was appointed art and photography director, marking the debut of a decade of revolutionary promotional activities for the company. Mr. Louys' arrival saw Citroën redirect advertising toward single-message print ads focusing on product attributes—fuel consumption, comfort—or the prestige of owning a Citroën.

Text was pared down, and graphics, headlines and eye-catching techniques such as the use of white space led the consumer's eye to a basic message and the Citroën logo. In addition, Mr. Louys ushered in the lifestyle ad, depicting Citroën models such as the new 10 HP against the backdrop of the countryside or the beach, over taglines offering the explicit promise of a good time: "Flee the city and savor the pleasures of a trip to the country," read one ad popular throughout the 1920s.

In 1922, as the company launched its first budget model, the 5 HP, Citroën paid a stunt pilot to write the company's name in smoke above the Champs-Elysées, just hours before the opening of the annual Paris Motor Show. Citroën also inaugurated a traveling motor show that presented the company's entire range of vehicles in cities, towns and even villages nationwide. A visit from "La Caravane Citroën," as the traveling show was known, attracted media from across the region where it was held, as well as the majority of the local population.

Citroën also made use of hidden advertising to promote the caravan, instructing local dealers to disguise paid print ads as articles written by journalists. When some media owners contested that practice, the company turned to "advertorials," or sponsored pages, to promote the road-show concept, which was later exported to Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Spain and France's North African colonies.

The Paris-Dakar rally

The 1920s were also a time of massive event marketing. Citroën sponsored the first motorized trip across the Sahara Desert in late 1922, then capitalized on the feat the following year with a film produced by French cinema leader Léon Gaumont. The company was to copied that promotion several times in the future, sponsoring expeditions across Africa and Asia that later gave birth to the famed Paris-Dakar rally.

In 1925, Citroën scored its biggest coup, lighting the famed Eiffel Tower and turning the landmark into the world's largest brand ad via illuminated letters spelling out the auto marketer's name. Covering the Eiffel Tower with the Citroën name and logo was a massive and costly endeavor, but the promotion, which lasted in various forms until 1934, kept the company's name squarely in the limelight.

Although the Eiffel Tower stunt was the company's most spectacular outdoor promotion, it paled in comparison with Citroën's national leadership in signposting, a public-service activity that saw all major tire and auto manufacturers assume the costs of branded road safety and directional signs. By 1932, the automaker had planted road signs across France and its colonies.

Citroën ushered in the era of celebrity marketing in 1927, inviting aviator Charles Lindbergh to visit the Citroen factory the day after the pilot completed the first solo, non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight. The visit was captured on film by the world media, as was Mr. Lindbergh's declaration—probably prompted—that he was guided to Paris' Le Bourget Airport by Citroën's lights on the Eiffel Tower.

A new front opened from 1928 to 1929, when Citroën inaugurated glamorous showrooms and service garages in Paris and the provinces that were hailed as models of architecture by critics of the era. The showroom policy, which extended to distributors and service stations across Europe, was managed by house architect Maurice-Jacques Ravaze and was specifically designed to boost Citroën's brand prestige.

The 1930s were not nearly as vibrant an era for Citroën; the Great Depression brought the automaker dwindling sales, crippling strikes and, finally, bankruptcy. The company was taken over by the tire manufacturer Michelin in 1934. Mr. Citroën immediately retired from the car business; he died the following year at the age of 57.

Michelin ownership

Concerned with Citroën's unstable finances, Michelin vowed to do away with all nonessential expenses, starting with advertising. Sales of new models soared, however, pushed by Mr. Citroën's final design, the Citroën Traction. Ensuing political uncertainty and World War II put the company in limbo until the 1948 unveiling of the economy compact 2CV. Advertising for the car was minimal, limited to posters from the Theo Brugiere agency and technical brochures created in-house.

The 1955 launch of another Citroën classic, the elongated DS, ushered in a fresh era of advertising managed by new marketing director Claude Puech. Mr. Puech ran the first Citroën TV spots in the late 1950s, he brought in celebrated photographers Robert Doisneau and Pierre Jahan for high-profile campaigns for the DS and he approved poster campaigns from the Netherlands designed by graphic artist Karel Suyling. The success of Mr. Suyling's early work, marked by a pure, elegant and modern style, launched him on a 20-year collaboration with Citroën that would see him create more than 200 ads.

The company entered an advertising renaissance in 1960, when Mr. Puech hired avant-garde publisher Robert Delpire to produce an in-house magazine, Le Double Chevron, intended for dealers. Delpire Publicit‚ hired legendary photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud from the Magnum agency, ordering them to shoot Citroën's cars from new angles and in original contexts. This approach gave way over the ensuing decade to a series of exceptional brochures and catalogs for the 2CV and DS that were loaded with beautiful art and photography and remain collector's items to this day.

The advent of international competition in the 1970s led Citroën to greater reliance on sales-oriented press and TV advertising. But advertising suffered from a 1976 change in ownership, when Michelin sold the car company to its leading French rival, Peugeot, in May 1976, which formed Peugeot Citroën Group, or PSA Peugeot Citroën. At the same time, Mr. Delpire sold his agency to RSCG. In August 1978, PSA acquired Chrysler Europe, which it renamed Talbot in 1979.


At RSCG, the Citroën account fell into the hands of Jacques Séguéla, a Citroën devotee who had driven a 2CV around the world in 1958, written a best-selling book about his exploits and worked with Messrs. Delpire and Puech on the company's advertising. Mr. Séguéla had mixed results with the account until 1980, when a new marketing director, Georges Falconnet, was appointed at Citroën.

RSCG convinced Citroën to dedicate 15% of ad spending to brand promotion. This led to a highly acclaimed poster campaign from artist Raymond Savignac, "The Little Gentleman and the Citroëns," in 1981, and one of the decade's most memorable TV spots, "Citroëns Sauvages," which featured wild horses running across the desert in the formation of Citroën's double chevron logo, in 1984.

Mr. Séguéla next asked French President Francois Mitterand—for whom he handled political advertising—to "loan" RSCG an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine for an outlandish spot for the Visa GTI. He rolled an AX across the Great Wall of China and into a revered Tibetan monastery. And he brought back celebrity advertising, placing pop singer Grace Jones in a series of spots for the CX2.

A sales slowdown in the early 1990s saw Mr. Séguéla create a new division within the agency, Euro RSCG Scher Lenoir Lafarge, dedicated specifically to Citroën advertising. Campaigns in the mid-1990s for the AX and Xantia models, based around the now-classic "Nothing moves you like a Citroën" tagline, won rave reviews. So did new celebrity advertising, such as that featuring supermodel Claudia Schiffer in a filmed crash-test ad for the Xsara compact. In 1993, Citroën adopted "Discover what Citroën can do for you," as its new ad slogan; in 1997, Citroën launched its corporate Web site.

With the departure of two key people in 1999, Mr. Séguéla recast the shop as Euro RSCG Works to launch Citroën's first model of the new millennium, a compact minivan named after the artist Pablo Picasso. Citroën paid an undisclosed, but reportedly massive, fee for use of the name and the right to associate the car with Mr. Picasso's artwork.

Prelaunch advertising depicted the artist looking off into the distance, while a caption in a child's handwriting asked, "Mummy, why's that man got the same name as the car?" In the wake of an overwhelming consumer response, Citroën justified the cost of acquiring the Picasso name as a relatively cost-effective means of achieving global brand recognition.

Rather than duplicate the Picasso affair, Citroën planned to base future product launches around the once-popular practice of using coded numerical names reminiscent of signature models such as the AX, the BX, the 2CV or the DS. The approach allowed Citroën to scale back its $200 million global ad spending while advancing sales beyond the million-unit mark in 1999.

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