Little room for error at Chrysler

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Popular hip-hop artist 50 Cent needed an over-the-top vehicle for a video shoot. Chrysler's capable new 300C sedan got the nod.

Now the controversial rapper is featuring the new 300C, with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine, in his new video release this spring. The news is all over the Internet.

"It's the best car marketing you can do," Julie Roehm says about star endorsements for a product, even though Chrysler has no formal relationship with 50 Cent. In January, Ms. Roehm was named director-marketing communications for the Chrysler Group brands-Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge.

The automaker finds itself in a precarious position in this critical year. Chrysler doesn't want to repeat last year's ad missteps that riled dealers and the public. And the North American unit of DaimlerChrysler needs to reverse losses of a reported $637 million last year.

Chrysler waged a controversial ad campaign last quarter, trying to break through a cluttered marketplace. In late January, dealer and community pressure forced Dodge to cancel co-sponsorship of a pay-per-view Lingerie Bowl featuring scantily clad women playing touch football during Super Bowl halftime. Truck commercials featuring a powerful Hemi engine and sophomoric urinal humor drew fire. And dealers criticized the Chrysler brand's pricey $14 million ad deal with pop diva Celine Dion, saying she wouldn't resonate with customers.

"Humor is tough," says Van Bussmann, senior VP with J.D. Power & Associates, referring to Chrysler ads last quarter. "They tried to give it some edge. But Dodge was bordering on gross. Most people thought they had stepped over the edge."

Sales for the first quarter did rise, climbing 2%, to 517,504 vehicles, from a year ago. It was the second consecutive quarter of year-to-year sales gains for Chrysler Group.

Now, Chrysler Group is changing course and betting on nine critical product launches this year. Advertising from Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, Troy, Mich., will focus on product and performance virtues-and less on celebrities, skin and off-color humor.

aiming at younger driver

The new strategy ties into the Chrysler marque's efforts to reposition itself as a more premium brand aimed at young, affluent buyers. First-quarter launches included the PT Cruiser convertible, and Caravan and Town & Country minivans in March, followed by the 300 sedan series this month and the Crossfire roadster due in May.

Despite its financial losses, the automaker increased ad spending by 27.3%, to $1.4 billion, on Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler in 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. The company wouldn't disclose its 2004 media budget, saying only it would spend more to get its message out.

Advertising will be spread "evenly over the vehicles and what's needed by brand," Ms. Roehm says, adding, "We want to get the word out to the marketplace that we have an excellent [Hemi] engine, superior performance and unbelievable value."

The ads introduce the Chrysler brand's new "Inspiration comes standard" tagline, suggesting the lineup is loaded with excellent products. "It's been on-air less than one week and has had an unusually positive response," Ms. Roehm said soon after the push began. The tag replaces "Drive + Love," which had lower consumer appeal.

Kickoff TV ads last month featured the Chrysler lineup in 30-second prime-time spots. The commercials carry strong product messages, including warranty and pricing.

Spots for the Chrysler 300 series launch in spring as the car hits dealerships.

Jeff Schuster, senior director-global forecasting at J.D. Power, says Chrysler is learning from its mistakes, especially from a misfired Pacifica launch last year. "It sends the right message [that it will] stay on the edge of design," he says, adding, "It's a brand moving in the right direction, trying to find its identity, similar to Buick."

comparison outings

Chrysler will take its brand message directly to consumers. One current example: Consumers can sample Chrysler brand products vs. its competitors in a series of outdoor venues. The "Art of Driving" ride-and-drive event began April 3 in Pasadena, Calif., and will hit 12 cities.

The aggressively scheduled driving experience includes a "mobile combination of auto show and car museum, and presents a unique opportunity to drive our cars against competitive models," says Jay Kuhnie, director-Chrysler brand communications. Participants can drive more than 75 vehicles, such as rival Lexus, Toyota, BMW and even Cadillac models.

At the New York Auto Show this week, Chrysler marketing executives are trumpeting the new products. The setting is an indoor "Camp Jeep 101" course where visitors can drive Jeeps and other vehicles over a massive dirt-filled terrain.

Celine Dion is back with Chrysler but in a more subdued role. Chrysler says it will sponsor her in a series of public service announcements with the National Safety Council stressing child safety and buckling tips.

Ms. Roehm says she authorized the controversial Dodge ads but contends controversy can be good. Her position was solidified during an early January marketing reorganization that left her and Mr. Kuhnie reporting to Jeff Bell, VP-brand marketing. He answers to George Murphy, senior VP-global brand marketing. Fred Diaz succeeded Ms. Roehm as director-marketing communications for Dodge.

"By connecting everything together," Ms. Roehm says, "we're finding efficiency across the board and have the ability to be more pro-active."

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