Francois Fights to Right Fiat Fiasco

New Brand Chief Admits 'Awareness Problem' but Defends J. Lo as One Way to Fix It

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"I don't think we have a car problem; people love the car," said Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer and head of brand marketing communications for Fiat-Chrysler, speaking of the former brand. "I think we have an awareness problem."

But however you slice it, there's a problem: After six months, the automaker isn't selling anywhere near the ambitious U.S. 6,000-per-month goal set by Fiat-Chrysler chairman Sergio Marchionne; dealers are disgruntled that they have only one model, the 500, to sell; Fiat is dropping its original U.S. agency, a tiny, under-the-radar shop seemingly ill-equipped to handle a full-blown car launch; a celebrity-fueled promotion went awry and was canceled before it got launched; and its latest marketing push -- a music-video-style ad featuring Jennifer Lopez -- is taking a drubbing for both its creative and media placement.

It all adds up to Mr. Francois, who spoke with Ad Age in an exclusive interview during a dealer meeting in Rochester, Mich. last week, having his hands full. Mr. Francois, chief marketing officer and head of marketing and communications for Chrysler, added oversight of Fiat marketing this month.

In January, Ad Age reported that Fiat North America CEO Laura Soave had hired Impatto, a Southfield, Mich.-based boutique agency run by Michael D'Antonio to handle creative duties and event strategy. Impatto had handled some event marketing at Ford when Ms. Soave was there.

When asked about Ms. Soave's status at the company, a Chrysler spokeswoman said "To my knowledge, Laura is still on board."

Ms. Soave could not be reached for comment.

Lopez's Fiat ad
Lopez's Fiat ad

What other executives close to the situation did say was that Impatto was outsourcing creative on Fiat, and Mr. Francois confirmed that "we are winding down our relationship with them. There's no real marriage. I never, ever meet with them, never met with the guy [Mr. D'Antonio]. My understanding is that they are less of an advertising agency and more of a strategic partner."

Mr. D'Antonio did not return a call at press time.

"I respect what she [Ms. Soave] did so far. I may have my opinions about the brand, and they are well known so I'm not going to get into anything here," said Mr. Francois. "But when you are working with limited resources, you have to invent some out-of -the-box stuff which I am trying to do."

One out-of -the-box play was working with Ms. Lopez on what former auto-marketing exec Peter DeLorenzo called "quite possibly the worst automotive spot of the last decade, hands down." Mr. Francois defended the push and said it was not a commercial at all but rather a "trailer" for Ms. Lopez's new video for the single "Papi." Mr. Francois said it came about after a discussion he and his friend Ms. Lopez had with her manager Benny Medina, in which they talked about having the Fiat 500 used as the car featured in the chase sequence of the video. Afterward, Mr. Francois said he asked Mr. Medina for the footage and said Fiat would put together a 30-second trailer for the video. Impatto was never involved. "I think it's clear that it's a trailer and not an ad; we're inviting people to go see the whole video on YouTube," Mr. Francois said. "As I am speaking to you I am here in Rochester (Mich.) meeting with the national dealer council and I can tell you there is some enthusiasm for this ad."

But there's also some backlash. Noted one Fiat dealer, who asked not to be identified, "It's an ad. And it's being shown during an ad break on football games. Why are we on football games?"

Indeed, the ad, err, trailer, has been a fixture on NFL broadcasts for the past two weeks since debuting Sept. 12 on Monday Night Football. "The ads, except for the placement, were saying to me this is a car for hip women. That's what immediately jumped out to me -- that they're going after women, and going after cool. So why advertise that on football?" said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

Asked about the reasoning for the buy, Mr. Francois said: "The fact that we're speaking about it right now means something. The awareness is here. America is aware that there is a car. We needed this kind of a spark." Mr. Francois shot down rumors that Doner, a Chrysler roster agency, was part of the J. Lo ad/trailer, but did say that a "real" Fiat ad featuring Ms. Lopez would be out "in a few weeks" -- though he declined to say which agency was doing the spot. Mr. Francois added that it would be one of the automaker's current roster agencies, which include Wieden & Kennedy, Leo Burnett and Global Hue, among others.

"The Fiat account will be open for all roster agencies," he said. A Chrysler spokeswoman declined to comment on the rumor that Chrysler's media buying, currently with Universal McCann, was in review.

Asked whether there was a shift in strategy from the "Life is best when driven" tagline that accompanied Fiat's reentry into the market earlier this year, Mr. Francois said the tagline will remain even in the new J. Lo spot. "She befits that . She shares some characteristics of the car. She's a fighter, a mover, a performer," Mr. Francois said of Ms. Lopez. "Listen, I'm not a great fan of using celebrities at any cost. I prefer a good idea to a bad celebrity. I used to say endorsements are lazy when you have no idea. But that 's not the point -- from time to time you have a magic association. I like to take a celebrity because the celebrity's story fits with the story."

Celebrities seem to have been central to the Fiat strategy. According to the New York Post, the company Fiat and celebrity website TMZ struck an alliance in which the carmaker would pay TMZ to photograph celebrities who were set up to drive the Fiat 500. According to the Post, the paparazzi would be tipped off to celebrities who were set to drive the cars, and they would shoot the unsuspecting stars.

"This was conceived before my time," said Mr. Francois, noting that the original plan was just to have influencers drive the car and be seen around New York, Los Angeles and Miami -- not photographed.

"I think there is a true part of the story and a totally invented part of the story. The paparazzi part is crazy to me. Maybe there had been internal talks but I was not involved," he said. "We were going to give the opportunity to some opinion leaders to drive the car. We have a lot of requests, around L.A. especially, to drive the car. It's nothing but good to have opinion leaders driving your car. I don't know what happened, but it spun out of control." There's little question Mr. Francois has a reputation for magic-making. Fueled by the acclaimed "Made in Detroit" campaign debuting in the Super Bowl with rapper Eminem, Chrysler's sales have grown nearly 38% from 95,102 units in February 21% when the ad broke to 130,119 units in August, according to Automotive News.

But Fiat, for the moment, is a one-trick pony with the 500. The Fiat Abarth isn't due in dealerships until next year, and the relaunch of Alfa Romeo in the U.S. has been delayed until 2014. That has dismayed dealers who have invested upward of $1 million, and more, on Fiat "studios" separate from their Chrysler dealerships.

"First of all, you go back to Fiat's old reputation of 'Fix It Again Tony' and you wonder if they can really bring back a brand that had such a poor reputation," said Ms. Krebs. "Can they do it? We don't know that yet because there are not enough vehicles out there."

Fiat is only achieving about half of Mr. Marchionne's 6,000-a-month goal right now. According to Automotive News, Fiat 500 sold 11,088 units in the U.S. to date; August sales were 3,106. "Their target for this year 50,000 units," said Ms. Krebs. "I calculated last month that it's going to look more like 30,000."

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