LOS ANGELES -- By the beard of Zeus, that was a winning campaign.
Dodge's series of commercials starring Will Ferrell as the Anchorman character Ron Burgundy was a bona fide viral hit. Chrysler says the 70-odd TV spots and Web videos racked up more than 33 million views on YouTube as of early January and made the Dodge brand a pop culture talking point last fall.
But with his effusive endorsement of the Durango's glove compartment, among other features, Burgundy did something more important than generate buzz for the crossover. He helped move metal. And with the Super Bowl just three weeks away and major vehicle launches on the horizon, Dodge's campaign could hold lessons for automakers hoping to translate viral success into real demand.
"We've seen a lot of instances with things like this where there are false positives, where a campaign gets a lot of buzz and lots of high-level Web site hits and stuff like that, but it doesn't translate to in-market demand. A lot of Super Bowl campaigns are like that," says Lincoln Merrihew, vice president of transportation at research company Millward Brown Digital.
Burgundy was different, he says. "I'd definitely call it a hit."
After the campaign launched in October, the Durango had 28,500 in-market shoppers in November, more than the nameplate had in any month so far that year and the second most it's had in the past two years, according to Millward Brown. In-market shoppers are those who are nearing a purchase of a specific model, Millward Brown says. Durango sales rose 36 percent in November and 3 percent in December from year-earlier months.
The Durango's share of market interest -- the percentage of people researching the Durango out of all in-market auto shoppers across the Web -- also increased to a 2013 high of 1 percent in November from 0.7 percent in September, before the campaign began.
"That's a really big gain," Merrihew says. "In terms of generating demand, which is what the campaign is supposed to do, it's been fantastic."
And somewhat rare. Online search traffic spurred by splashy automotive advertising, even big-budget Super Bowl spots, often fails to translate into actual increases in demand to the degree that Dodge has had with the Burgundy campaign, Merrihew says. This campaign struck a chord, he says, by latching onto a hot piece of pop culture with genuinely entertaining content.
Simply put, the commercials were funny.
"It was compelling to watch," Merrihew says. "You had to watch it because Burgundy the character is so straight-laced, and yet you laugh at him. The character is trying to be so authentic and real, but Will Ferrell by definition is being tongue-in-cheek and goofy. Just like the movie, you want to see just how off-the-rails this can go."
That, in a nutshell, was the principle behind the video series. At the campaign's launch, Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer of Chrysler Group, told reporters that a commercial starring Ferrell had long been one of his dream projects. On a visit to the Paramount Pictures studios in Hollywood, Francois learned that an Anchorman sequel was in the works and worked out a deal with the studios for a co-marketing campaign. The film hit theaters Dec. 18.
The financial arrangement was vintage Francois: using a tight marketing budget to squeeze the most viral impact out of a campaign, a formula that has served Chrysler's brands well since the automaker emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.
Creatively, though, it was all Burgundy.
"We couldn't script for Ron Burgundy," Francois wrote in an e-mail. "You need to be 100 percent true to his character, as he has an enormous pop culture following. The idea was handed over to Will Ferrell, and he and his team had complete creative freedom."
Chrysler wanted three to six spots that talked about the Durango's horsepower, fuel economy and infotainment system, Francois wrote. The rest was up to Ferrell and his writing partner, Adam McKay, who directed both Anchorman films, as well as other Ferrell feature films such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. The two jointly own funnyordie.com, a comedy Web site.
Somehow, between the uncluttered sound stage and an editing room, those three to six spots developed into nearly 70 commercials and video clips. Francois wrote that about 50 have aired on TV. Twenty are posted on Dodge's YouTube page. And a few that are not necessarily suitable for TV have been uploaded to funnyordie.com.
One spot shows Burgundy, flanked by a Durango and a horse, pointing out that the crossover has up to 360 hp, while the horse has the power of, well, one horse.
"That makes you feel pretty dumb, doesn't it?" Burgundy tells the horse.
Another spot begins with Burgundy offhandedly mentioning the Durango's 360-hp Hemi V-8 before quickly pivoting to the marvel that is its glove box, which "comfortably fits two turkey sandwiches" and "comes standard."
Jim Sanfilippo, an independent marketing consultant and former head of ad agencies for Ford and Hyundai, says that with the variety of platforms carrying the spots -- TV, movie theaters and the Web -- and their memorable content, it's impossible not to associate Dodge and the Durango with Ferrell and the Burgundy character.
"A lot of companies will use a celebrity to do that, but it wouldn't have approached critical mass to enter the consciousness," Sanfilippo says.
That level of integration can be a huge potential pitfall for the brand if, for instance, the film bombs or the celebrity runs into trouble off screen. In the case of Dodge, a brand with a history of irreverent marketing, the risk seemed worth it.
"I think Francois actually saw this for its potential," Sanfilippo says. "I really give him credit for that. It is not often that it seems so clear to someone that something would be a great idea."
A similar experiment is in the works at Acura. American Honda's upscale brand last month expanded its partnership with comedian Jerry Seinfeld with a batch of spots he wrote to accompany the third season of his online video series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which Acura sponsors.
The spots, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), use contemporary vehicles but parody the hype of 1960s-era automotive advertising. Seinfeld and Sonnenfeld worked alongside Acura's agency, Mullen, to produce the spots.
The first batch puzzled some ad critics with their dated language and imagery, prompting Seinfeld to clarify that the spots were meant to be spoofs of old-time advertising.
In an interview with Automotive News affiliate Advertising Age, Seinfeld said comedy can work as advertising if it's the right fit. In his case, he says Comedians in Cars, in which he picks up comedians in classic cars before sharing witty banter over coffee, is intended for "comedy nerds" who understand his style.
For Dodge, Ferrell's style of comedy helped bridge a gap between the Durango nameplate, which has become more refined in recent years, and a brand that has never been about cachet. With the Anchorman tie-up, Dodge reintroduced the Durango name in the voice of a character who has broad appeal among the brand's target audience, young males in search of powerful but unpretentious transportation.
"They didn't take themselves too seriously from a product perspective," says Katie Elfering, senior director at research company CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insights. "That idea really resonated, especially with millennials, because so often what we see is the hyping of things that actually don't make a ton of sense or solve real problems, that are there because they can be and not because they need to be," Elfering says. "I think the fact that, instead of doing that, they made it more about the entertainment value actually helped. They weren't trying too hard."
If there's one lesson industry marketers can learn from this, Sanfilippo says, it's to be more open to big ideas, and big risks.
With the Burgundy spots, he says, Francois is "giving license to the industry, not to copy him, but to be a little more aggressive on the creative end of things. Every automaker could use some of that."