Mr. Marchionne's decision to have a European shepherd an iconic
Detroit brand was initially met with skepticism. But now, it's
difficult to find a marketing analyst who doesn't gush over Mr.
"He did a wonderful job of telling better stories, bigger
stories and more powerful stories that resonated with America in a
very important way, changing the trajectory of how people conversed
about the brand," said Steve Wilhite, a former Volkswagen marketing
executive who is now a management consultant in Delmar, Calif. Mr.
Wilhite credits "Born of Fire" with identifying Detroit as a proud
and good place, not a sad and terrible place, therefore helping
renew the public's faith in Chrysler.
The data tell a compelling story, according to Jeremy Anwyl, VP
of Edmunds.com. Chrysler's "Born of Fire" ad boosted the brand's
consideration 87% in the week after it aired. In February 2011,
sales of the Chrysler 200 featured in the ad jumped 25% from the
previous year. Visits to the vehicle's web page in February were up
more than fourfold over the previous month.
Mr. Anwyl said if the Chrysler 200 ad were analyzed by
traditional measures, it would be faulted for not emphasizing the
car it advertised. Yet the spot was "magic" and "knocked it out of
the ballpark," he said.
Sean Fitzpatrick, a former creative director at Campbell Ewald
who did many ads for Chevrolet and who now teaches advertising at
the College of William and Mary, uses this ad in his classroom as a
model for effective advertising. "It took great courage to tell the
truth about what Detroit has gone through and to talk about the
fact that when you go through a tough time, that 's when your
character is formed," he said. Acknowledging that Chrysler had
further to climb than its domestic competitors, he said the
company's ads are "hot sauce" while competitor General Motors' have
a "strong taste of vanilla."
Spending, too, played a role. In 2011, spending on the Chrysler
brand in the U.S. surged 96% to $365.4 million, according to Kantar
Media. Total U.S. spending by the automaker, including unmeasured
spending was $1.77 billion for 2011, according to Ad Age 's
DataCenter, up from $1.16 billion in 2010.
The Fiat challenge
But there are those who believe Chrysler Group marketing has a
ways to go in wooing consumers to the brand. Lincoln Merrihew,
VP-transportation for Compete, which measures shopper behavior,
said that in early 2006, some 9% of shoppers looked for a Dodge.
That's now down to 7.4%. Though Chrysler, at 2.9% in 2010, saw a
lift to 3.3% in May 2011 following its Super Bowl ad, that number
has since settled to 3.2%.
And not all of Mr. Francois' ads were so well-received. His
commercials for the Fiat 500 featuring Jennifer Lopez and for the
Abarth with Charlie Sheen were far more controversial. The Jennifer
Lopez ad "was outright horrible," lacking emotional connectivity
between the brand and the audience, said Mr. Wilhite. Jody DeVere,
CEO of AskPatty.com, which tracks female responses to marketing,
said both ads were "pandering and sexist." Chris Travell,
VP-strategic consulting for the Automotive Research Group of Maritz
Research, said the ads haven't generated the targeted sales volume
Chrysler sought, and "the effective marketing of the Fiat brand in
the U.S. going forward would certainly be one of the challenges
The criticism is a sensitive issue for Mr. Francois. "My
objective is not to be judged by some angry journalists but to
deliver sales," he said. The executive argues that it was essential
to create provocative ads as the brand he reintroduced to the U.S.
He's also pleased at the way he was able to leverage a smaller
advertising budget. Ms. Lopez brought the Fiat 500 on the stage of
the American Music Awards, where it was seen by 120 million
viewers. It was also featured in Carly Rae Jepsen's video "Call Me
Maybe," which has received 120 million views on YouTube, targeting
"the perfect audience: teenagers who are starting to drive," he
The results, Mr. Francois said, have been good. Fiat's North
American sales have jumped to 47,000 this year, from 21,000 last
year, in line with the company's goal to deliver 50,000 units in
the region. For October, Fiat had the highest percent change in
sales of any automaker over the previous year, according to
Automotive News, though it is off a small base.
The ads brought more Fiat buyers into Holt Fiat, a Hurst, Texas,
dealer. Kyle King, the dealership's fixed-operations manager, has
heard customers discussing the commercials and noted that the
dealership sold 12 more units the month after the Jennifer Lopez ad
aired. The ads "get your attention and are generating buzz," he
Of course, the response from the pivotal "Born of Fire" was a
lot bigger. Richard Summers, general manager of Lithia Chrysler,
Jeep, Dodge of Medford, Ore., said his dealership was fighting "to
keep our head above water" before the ad aired. Following its
release, "it was crazy the response we were getting," he said. The
dealership tripled its sales of the Chrysler 200, which had been
Executives at Chrysler's ad agencies describe Mr. Francois as an
unpretentious, fast-thinking, hands-on manager who is relentlessly
optimistic and enthusiastic about nearly every idea. Stan Richards,
principal of The Richards Group, which handles Dodge Ram and
developed the Fiat "Seduction" ad, said Mr. Olivier brings "fire"
to the task of creating advertising and does not overly rely on
research and testing. "The result is we put outstanding work on the
table in front of him," Mr. Richards said. "He invariably picks the
right work and gets very involved in producing it."
David DeMuth, co-CEO and president of Doner, the agency that
handles retail marketing for Chrysler and also developed the
Jennifer Lopez and Charlie Sheen Fiat ads, said Mr. Francois is the
least risk-averse client he's worked with. Many in marketing "view
it as their job to tell you what's wrong with an idea," but Mr.
Olivier "looks to find what's right with an idea," Mr. DeMuth
John Jay , global executive creative director of Wieden &
Kennedy, which produced "Born of Fire," "Halftime in America" and
"The Things We Make, Make Us," said that to Mr. Francois, nothing
is impossible. His agency wanted Eminem's music. Mr. Francois not
only got the rights to it, he secured Eminem as well. Mr. Jay was
skeptical that Clint Eastwood would agree to the commercial, but
Mr. Francois also lined him up. Once Mr. Francois is convinced of
the idea, "he goes out to help magic [make] happen," Mr. Jay
Mr. Francois sees himself as the coach and team leader. Drawing
a parallel to cooking, he asks that his creative agencies bring him
the raw ingredients, not the finished dish. He gives his agencies a
"spark, the beginning of an idea that could lead somewhere." For
example, in a recent meeting with The Richards
Group, a print of a woman with a scorpion on her back
piqued everyone's interest. Soon, they started building a story
around it. That was so inspiring, Mr. Francois said, it could
become the basis of a follow-up to the Fiat "Seduction" ad.
Mr. Francois' challenge will be to continue the momentum. He
says he's reviewing options for 2013's Super Bowl ad, revealing
only that the final campaign will be truthful to the message and
nature of the brand and "not just a device." Mr. Francois seems
eager to keep up the work, saying that Chrysler has been
"successful at starting a conversation. And conversation is