Chrysler makes interactive the cornerstone of its strategy

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Chrysler Group has upped its 2005 online advertising budget by 20%, a renewed commitment to a medium it hopes to make the center of its marketing efforts.

In 2004, DaimlerChrysler spent $40.3 million online, according to TNS Media Intelligence, of which $36.1 million was spent by Chrysler Group for its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. The marketer is shifting its dollars from other media, although George Murphy, senior VP-marketing, declined to specify which ones. Chrysler Group spent $1.6 billion last year on all media.

With 70% of consumers researching online before buying a car, most automakers have steadily moved ad money from TV and other channels to the Web each year. But for Chrysler Group, a longtime player in the interactive arena, the increased spending signals a significant ramp up of Internet-centric plans the company has been moving toward for some time.

"The objective is to make interactive the center of the marketing strategy so that consumers can be spoken to individually," said Julie Roehm, director-marketing communications, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge, the three brands under the Chrysler Group umbrella. "Our strategy looking forward is that all media is going to become two-way," added Ms. Roehm, who is a self-described "ROI fanatic, a metric freak."

Chrysler Group is on a roll. It announced early this month that March marked its 12th straight month of positive sales. The marketer reported it sold a total of 212,978 units in the U.S. last month. Its first-quarter sales of 546,732 units was 7% higher than a year ago, even though Jeep sales for the period slid by 6% to 103,712 vehicles. Chrysler and Dodge brands were up 28% and 3% respectively.

One way the company has kept the Internet on par with other channels is to bring interactive agency of record Organic to initial planning sessions with agency of record Omnicom Group's BBDO Detroit. (Omnicom's PHD is the automaker's media and planning agency.)

"The online [channel] is the integral part and the hub to our marketing process," said Bonita Stewart, director-interactive communications for the Chrysler Group.

An example of that strategy in fledgling form was the Spring Sales Event campaign in March when off-line TV and print ads displayed Web addresses to drive people to Dodge.com, Chrysler.com and Jeep.com. But the effort demonstrating the full-blown strategy will occur with the launch of Dodge's Charger sedan later this spring, when the major media blitz for the rejuvenated muscle car begins, Ms. Roehm confirmed.

The Spring Sales Event theme was testimonials, and while the TV spots featured actors, the Web sites showed Polaroid-type snapshots of real customers. Click on the snapshots and a video film rolls with customers talking about their lives, their rides and their passion for their cars. The shorts, filmed on location by Organic, are quirky and decidedly not about beautiful people. Take the woman who calls herself the Glitter Goddess. With her teased, platinum blond hair and preference for pink, when she says about her Chrysler 300, "I can't believe I was able to afford a Motor Trend Car of the Year," she is somehow so real, she's believable.

STICKING AROUND

"The Glitter Goddess suddenly makes the 300 a niche brand for someone out there," said Colleen DeCourcy, executive creative director, Organic.

After viewing the clips, visitors don't leave the site, Ms. Stewart said. Across the three sites, 53,000 viewers configured vehicles for themselves; 46,000 clicked through to dealer sites; and 25,000 tried out the financial tool. "This was a great example of combining all mediums and utilizing the brand Web site as the integrator," Ms. Stewart said.

As for the Charger, although mum on most of the details, Chrysler executives said it would involve consumers requesting technology that resides on their bottom toolbar on their desktop. The device would send a signal when there's something new for the consumer to know, such as events or contests. "If it resides on your toolbar, you as the consumer can say what you want," Ms. Stewart said.

While online-marketing analysts say Chrysler has done a good job with its interactive plays, "nobody has proven or made repeatable what we think of as persuasive in Web sites," said Mark Bunger, principal analyst, Forrester Research. "If [the Chrysler Group] is listening as well as persuading, they will do well."

e-mail push

Tactics to support the rejuvenated interactive strategy this year, and open up lines of communication with consumers, include a major push to add more e-mail addresses to the company's 17 million-name database. The database is housed in the interactive division where Ms. Stewart can oversee measurement, modeling and communication with all customers.

The drive for e-mail will occur through what Ms. Stewart refers to as a "return-on-click" strategy. For instance, the automaker's prodigious adver-gaming initiatives (some 25 games were created since the late `90s) were upgraded by game company partner WildTangent to nudge players toward higher levels of the game and enhancements like tournaments in return for their e-mail addresses.

In another one-to-one initiative, the company plans to pursue wireless marketing "fairly aggressively" this year, according to Ms. Stewart. She wouldn't provide details on a pilot running now, but said it is looking into Mobi-TV-paying to stream consumers' favorite TV shows to their smart phones in return for information. Another content-on-demand scheme might involve showing Chrysler ads in the seconds between a customer's chosen programming.

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