Chrysler: Imported From Detroit by Christopher Pavese, The View from the Blue Ridge

The Chrysler Corporation was founded by Walter Chrysler in 1925 and remains one of the “Big Three” American automobile manufactures today. While the brand remains headquartered in Auburn Hills, the company is owned by Italian automaker Fiat, once derisively known as Fix It Again Tony.

A  Frenchman named Oliver Francois crafts the company’s clever marketing campaigns and appears to understand our culture better than most Americans. Judging by the results – Chrysler’s domestic market share has marched steadily higher from 8.7% in March 2010 to 13.2% today – perhaps this fresh perspective is just what the American company needed.

Chrysler has grown at four times the pace of the rest of the industry this year, topped off by a greater volume increase than all other automakers combined last month. Francois rejects marketing that dwells on features and price. His commercials make people talk. Bloomberg called him Chrysler’s Don Draper a few years back:

Chrysler may still hail from the Motor City, but Francois isn’t interested in selling cars the way Detroit used to. In a business that increasingly markets price, he’s using hip-hop music and evocative images to strike a chord with average Americans rather than simply glorify sheet metal. The famed $9 million, two-minute spot for the Chrysler 200 sedan that premiered at the 2011 Super Bowl featured rapper Eminem talking about Detroit’s rebirth but barely showed the vehicle. And a commercial featuring George Washington driving a Challenger to chase off British Redcoats sells the idea of freedom more than the muscle car itself. Explains Francois: “What we’re trying to do is to create, to reignite the American dream.”

The 50-year-old Francois, born in Paris, isn’t the kind of executive you’d find at General Motors. The Fiat veteran writes poems, spends his free time in recording studios, and was a fixture at red carpet events in Europe when he worked there. He also since 2009 has had the daunting job of trying to make customers see sophistication in Chrysler—the recipient of two government bailouts in the past 30 years—months before new Fiat-derived models hit U.S. showrooms.

The 2011 Super Bowl spot with Eminem and the Selected of God choir sparked a comeback wave for Motown. A year later, Eastwood delivered his “Halftime” pep talk and in 2012, Fiat’s Chief Marketing Officer, Olivier Francois, received two prestigious industry honors.

Francois was named the “Grand Brand Genius” by Adweek magazine and Advertising Age magazine named Chrysler Group, the “Marketer of the Year” for a series of advertising campaigns that resonated across America and lifted sales. “Halftime” reached millions online and spawned parodies on Saturday Night Live.

Francois’ Super Bowl success was followed by Farmer in 2013 which drew 20 million views on YouTube and critical acclaim. Most importantly, the ads sold cars. Ram’s market share jumped from 11.7% to 18.9% after “Farmer” and before “Halftime,” the Chrysler 200 sold 800 units a month. After the spot, it jumped to 6,000 a month.

While we wait to see what Francois has in store for this season’s Super Bowl, Chrysler has already followed up its commercials featuring Eminen, Oprah and Clint Eastwood with Ron Burgundy and the Dodge Brothers this year.

At last year’s Association of National Advertisers meeting, Francois described Ron Burgundy as a “timeless authority” on “how to stay classy.” The greater point about Chrysler’s marketing philosophy: “Breaking convention is what guides us,” said Francois. “We won’t make marketing as usual.”

Chrysler and Fiat no longer create commercials. The firm’s stories are bigger than commercials, and have helped build brand equity with consumers that Chrysler has historically lacked. Francois gets it. “It doesn’t matter if they stand close in the showroom,” he said. “It matters if they stand out in the marketplace.” As Ron Burgundy might say, Francois “has a voice that could make a wolverine purr.” We’ll take a closer look at who is purring in our next post on Fiat’s return to the US.

Chrysler