Content Isn't Branding: Why Chrysler's 'Halftime in America' Needs a Second Act

A Great Film Without Action in Its Wake Leaves No Tangible Tie to the Company

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I've been waiting for a few weeks now, and I don't think it's going to happen. Chrysler had a chance to turn the buzz about its "Halftime in America" spot into real, tangible branding and marketing benefits for its business. Perhaps it isn't too late, but God forbid we get another deliverable from its ad agency. The great little movie deserves better, and what it didn't accomplish should be as illustrative to CMOs as what it did.

I loved the movie, and I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of the tens of millions of people who saw it felt similarly. It was stirring and had a gritty realism that came from its brilliant synergy of topic and art direction. It was the second most popular Super Bowl spot in YouTube's annual poll. Just as importantly to the marketers who measure such stuff, the buzz about its political bent produced millions of free media mentions. All the eyeball counts and click reports had lots of exclamation points in them, I'm sure, and execs at competing car companies had frantic boardroom meetings to berate one another for not producing something similarly beautiful.

The problem is that it didn't have anything remotely to do with Chrysler's brand.

This was the point, it turns out, according to public statements by Chrysler Group LLC's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne, who explained that the spot was ". . . about a mission, not about a product. It is about the spirit that motivates our embracement of this mission." He added that the movie "portrayed the essence" of the company's "commitment," and that it was a message to the United States from "people who felt a duty to encourage the country they love."

Huh?

Company mission statements are squishy and mostly irrelevant on a good day, and I doubt Chrysler's includes wording about loving America. Even if it did, a spot about the essence of a spirit motivating embracement of a mission is about as clear as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It doesn't tell us anything unique or exclusively Chrysler. It makes no mention of making good on a commitment, or why we should believe Clint Eastwood's narration. It leaves us uninvolved once it ends, with nothing more than a vaguely fond feeling about a two-minute movie.

Sorry, but the only thing "Halftime in America" tells us is that Chrysler was willing to hire smart ad people and spend lots of money. The spot was created by Wieden + Kennedy, which has made a name for itself creating soaringly inspiring movies that don't say anything commercially relevant or ownable for brands like Nike and Levi's. The names on any of these spots are interchangeable, and somewhat forgettable.

The tragic flaw of the entire exercise is illustrated by Chrysler's YouTube channel, which elevates medium over message via a cool graphic that lets us "Watch America Unite One Post At A Time " as people Tweet or post updates to Facebook. The follow-up to the movie is all about watching and sharing, instead of internalizing and doing.

Imagine instead if Chrysler were busy making good on the themes it declared in its movie. It would use social media to enable real peer-to-peer interaction, getting people involved in buying locally-made things and sharing ideas for improving their communities. It could launch programs to outsource more or different widgets and/or services to areas in which it has factories and offices, in hopes of building extended networks of partners, not just fans. Chrysler could announce plans to purchase more car parts domestically and find more ways to support the local businesses that are its dealerships. It could invent new ways to buy Chrysler vehicles that redefined ownership more like owning shares in the brand, so drivers have some literal vested interest in the company's success.

I know there'll be comments below that tell me I'm missing the point and that "Halftime in America" created a wonderful image. I agree, it did. But building a brand in 2012 must involve the operational realities of the business. Content isn't branding, and claiming otherwise based on a great little movie is just too easy.

I'm waiting for the second act in which Chrysler will turn the fleeting imagery of its spot into something sustainably real.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Salem Baskin is president of Baskin Associates, Inc., a marketing-decisions consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter at @jonathansalem.
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