A turnaround Born of Fire
Dressed in blue jeans, boots and a blazer, Olivier Francois nursed a cup of espresso in his office at Chrysler's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., and recalled his first trip to Detroit.
It was Oct. 24, 2009, and Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne had requested the visit. At the time, Francois had no idea he was being offered the chance to move from CEO of Fiat's Lancia brand to head of marketing of Chrysler -- and eventually all of Fiat.
Francois remembers checking out American TV while in his hotel room. Although he doesn't recall the programs, he remembers the numerous commercials: for vinyl replacement windows, "one-day only" sales events and car commercials that used terms he'd never heard before, such as zero down, rust inhibitors and cupholders. And then there were the deals.
"It seemed like America would buy anything that ended in 99," he told Advertising Age, which named Chrysler Group its 2012 Marketer of the Year. Advertising Age is an affiliate of Automotive News.
But through the advertising clutter on the TV screen and the rain falling outside, he saw a city that impressed him with its spirit and attitude. Francois said his "fresh set of eyes" allowed him to see that "America had a story to tell that was bigger than any cupholder, bigger than any Columbus Day sales event."
This was the earliest seed of Chrysler's now-iconic messaging that draws parallels between the comeback of a gritty, tough city and the once-troubled automaker.
In 2009, when Francois took over marketing at Chrysler Group, the automaker held an 8.9 percent share of the U.S. new-vehicle market; now it's 11.5 percent. Unit sales grew 26 percent last year, compared with a 36 percent decline in 2009.
Chrysler's brand-loyalty rate -- the share of Chrysler owners who bought another Chrysler vehicle -- doubled from 15 percent in the third quarter of 2009 to 30 percent in the second quarter of 2012, according to R.L. Polk.
Prints of the Chrysler campaign, including Francois' signature "Imported from Detroit," hang in his rather barren office. The Paris-born executive, uneasy about his command of the English language, said he prefers that his work speak for him. Watching his commercials play on the supersized computer monitor, he conveys the kind of pride a father has for a child. These TV spots are, after all, his babies.
He is most proud of his first Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial, "The Things We Make, Make Us," which started it all. He said the "Born of Fire" spot featuring Eminem that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl and the "Halftime in America" commercial with Clint Eastwood for the 2012 Super Bowl provided continuity, communicating the pride of being an American and of being part of a new Chrysler.
Answering interview questions while checking his two BlackBerrys, Francois, 51, explains that telling a compelling story is what made the spots successful. Consumers, he said, are far more likely to engage with a good story than with a catalog of information or a list of features. Even so, he feels strongly that there is "zero contradiction between good storytelling and proudly speaking about the product."
But Chrysler's story is more about marketing than product. While the automaker has steadily raised its products' quality closer to industry benchmarks, its vehicles are in truth quite average.
"When they were bought by Fiat, Chrysler had a lot of holes to fill in their product line -- mostly because of uncompetitive product," said Jonathan Linkov, senior editor for autos at Consumer Reports. "Many still exist, but they're doing a decent job of addressing them, however slowly."
The heavy lifting, though, is coming from marketing. Chrysler's turnaround is "as much, if not more, about image than it is about [Chrysler] being a really "necessary product," Linkov said.
Marchionne's decision to have a European guide an iconic Detroit brand initially was met with skepticism. But now, it's difficult to find a marketing analyst who doesn't gush over Francois' work.
"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 Nissan, Volks-wagen and Hyundai marketing executive who is a management consultant in Del Mar, Calif.
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, says Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com. Chrysler's "Born of Fire" spot boosted the brand's consideration 87 percent in the week after it aired. Visits to the vehicle's Web page in February 2011 rose more than fourfold from the previous month.
Anwyl says if the Chrysler 200 spot 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 says.
Sean Fitzpatrick, a former creative director at Campbell Ewald who did many commercials for Chevrolet and now teaches advertising at the College of William and Mary, uses the "Born of Fire" spot 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 commercials are "hot sauce" while those of rival General Motors have a "strong taste of vanilla."
Ad spending, too, played a role. In 2011, Chrysler brand spending in the United States surged 96 percent to $365.4 million, according to Kantar Media. Total U.S. spending by Chrysler Group brands and Fiat, including unmeasured spending, was $1.77 billion for 2011, according to the Advertising Age Data Center, up from $1.16 billion in 2010.
The Fiat challenge
But some analysts believe Chrysler Group marketing has a ways to go in wooing consumers. Lincoln Merrihew, vice president of transportation at Compete, which measures shopper behavior, said that in early 2006, some 9 percent of shoppers looked for a Dodge. That's now down to 7.4 percent. Though Chrysler, at 2.9 percent in 2010, had an increase to 3.3 percent in May 2011 after its Super Bowl spot, that number has since settled to 3.2 percent.
And not all of Francois' commercials were well received. His spots for the Fiat 500 featuring Jennifer Lopez and for the Abarth with Charlie Sheen were controversial. The Lopez commercial, Wilhite said, "was outright horrible," lacking emotional connectivity between the brand and the audience.
Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com, which tracks female responses to marketing, said both spots were "pandering and sexist." Chris Travell, vice president of strategic consulting for the Automotive Research Group of Maritz Research, said the spots 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 Chrysler faces."
The criticism is a sensitive issue for Francois.
"My objective is not to be judged by some angry journalists but to deliver sales," he said.
He argues that it was essential to create provocative commercials for Fiat. He's also pleased at the way he leveraged a smaller advertising budget. 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 said.
The results, Francois said, have been good. Fiat sales in the United States, Canada and Mexico 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 North America.
The commercials brought more Fiat buyers into Holt Fiat in Hurst, Texas. Kyle King, the store's fixed-operations manager, has heard customers discussing the commercials and noted that the dealership sold 12 more units the month after the Lopez spot aired. The commercials "get your attention and are generating buzz," he said.
But the response from the pivotal "Born of Fire" commercial was a lot bigger. Richard Summers, general manager of Lithia Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge of Medford in Medford, Ore., said his dealership was fighting "to keep our head above water" before the spot 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 sluggish.
Executives at Chrysler's ad agencies describe 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 and Ram and developed the Fiat "Seduction" spot, said Francois brings fire to 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," Richards said. "He invariably picks the right work and gets very involved in producing it."
David DeMuth, co-CEO of Doner, the agency that handles retail marketing for Chrysler and developed the Lopez and Sheen Fiat commercials, said Francois is the least risk-averse client he has worked with. Many in marketing "view it as their job to tell you what's wrong with an idea," but Francois "looks to find what's right with an idea," DeMuth said.
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 Francois, nothing is impossible. His agency wanted Eminem's music. Francois not only got the rights to it, he secured Eminem as well. Jay was skeptical that Eastwood would agree to do the "Halftime in America" commercial, but Francois also lined him up. Once Francois is convinced of the idea, "he goes out to help magic happen," Jay said.
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."
In a recent meeting with The Richards Group, for instance, a print of a woman with a scorpion on her back piqued everyone's interest. Soon, participants began building a story around it. That was so inspiring, Francois said, it could become the basis of a follow-up to the Fiat "Seduction" ad.
Francois' challenge is to continue the momentum. He says he's reviewing options for 2013's Super Bowl spot, revealing only that the final campaign will be truthful to the message and nature of the brand and "not just a device."
Francois seems eager to keep up the work, saying that Chrysler has been "successful at starting a conversation. And conversation is paramount."