ANA Annual Meeting 2013

At Chrysler, Ron Burgundy Is In, Clint Eastwood Is Out

Olivier Francois: 'We Won't Make Marketing as Usual'

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How does Chrysler follow up an all-star commercial slate that has featured Eminen, Oprah and Clint Eastwood? Try Ron Burgundy.

Olivier Francios
Olivier Francios Credit: Photo by Roy Ritchie

At the Association of National Advertisers meeting in Phoenix today, Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer at Chrysler and Fiat Groups, offered attendees a sneak peek of a new slate of commercials for Dodge Durango. The spots feature Will Ferrell's "Anchorman" character, Ron Burgundy, or as Mr. Francois jokingly described him, a "timeless authority" on "how to stay classy." The spots, which featured Mr. Ferrell in character going on about how much gum the glove box can fit and mispronouncing "MPG," drew chuckles from the audience. Mr. Francois said the ads are part of a blitz that will blanket the web soon.

But Mr. Francois, who was speaking to the audience on his birthday, showed the spots to make a greater point about Chrysler's marketing philosophy: "Breaking convention is what guides us," said Mr. Francois, making an analogy to the constellations and stars aligning perfectly. "We won't make marketing as usual."

It wasn't always that way. In 2009, before the automaker broke its now famous "Imported from Detroit" campaign, "our alignment was blurry." He recounted the story of sitting in a Detroit hotel after taking the job in winter, turning on the TV and seeing ads for vinyl replacement windows and car ads shouting about deals, which was his inspiration to align the brand with ads that point out "America was bigger than cupholders and President's Day events."

Chrysler and Fiat, he said, don't create commercials but "stories" that are bigger than commercials, which helped the brand connect with the country. He showed the Eminem commercial, "Halftime in America" and "Farmer" to make his point.

"If you told me a few years ago that a slide show with no music would stand out in the Super Bowl, I'd have fallen off my tractor," he said referring to "Farmer." But the spot drew 20 million views on YouTube, awards and critical acclaim. Likewise, "Halftime" reached millions online, as well as TV and spawned parodies on "Saturday Night Live."

Most importantly, the ads sold cars. Ram's market share jumped from 11.7% to 18.9% after "Farmer," Mr. Francois said. And before "Halftime," the Chrysler 200 sold 800 units a month. After the spot, it jumped to 6,000 a month.

"It doesn't matter if they stand close in the showroom," he said of his brands. "It matters if they stand out in the marketplace." Once you have made a consumer connection, "grab it, own it, share it," he added.

Chrysler's 'Farmer' spot
Chrysler's 'Farmer' spot

As for Fiat "we need to go digital to reach a younger audience," Mr. Francois said, with content that "sometimes does not fit network standards and practices." He showed the sexy spot for Abarth in which a woman seductively wipes cappuccino foam off her mouth and a montage of Fiat web videos. The montage "got 20 million views without ever going to TV," he said. Social is also stoking the automaker's brands, as well as partnerships with celebs like Dr. Dre, Ziggy Pop , Zac Brown and Lenny Kravitz.

When asked by ANA-President CEO Bob Liodice how to change culture internally to do out-of-the-box marketing, Mr. Francois advised: "There's no magic. It's a matter of a little courage to challenge convention." He said that in the beginning the company "took some heat" over the untraditional nature of its ads -- until they caught on. "No magic," he said. "Just the will to change."