'Wisdom': How Dodge spun old into gold
Chrysler Group works its marketing magic again on video
Move over, Ron Burgundy. Chrysler Group's Dodge brand has a new viral video sensation.
It features not the buffoonery of a movie character but pearls of wisdom from earnest centenarians plus a tone that morphs quickly from touchy-feely to downright rebellious with one screech of a guitar.
"Wisdom," an 80-second video marking Dodge's 100th anniversary, is burning up the Web, generating more than 5.7 million views within 24 hours of its posting on April 17, according to online video analytics firm Visible Measures. Even Chrysler's standout Super Bowl commercials didn't achieve such striking results in their first day online.
It's the latest in a series of viral hits that have emerged from the Chrysler-Fiat marketing shop in recent years, beginning with a 2011 Detroit-themed Super Bowl commercial that helped rebrand Chrysler -- if not the U.S. auto industry itself -- post-bankruptcy.
But while many of those hits came out of carefully planned ad campaigns backed by big budgets, videos such as "Wisdom" and one for the Fiat 500 Abarth called "Seduction," later adapted for a Super Bowl commercial, represent a different breed: small-scale, low-budget productions that the marketing shop uses to test the waters for unorthodox brand messages.
They are the product of a creative process that emphasizes experimentation and risk-taking without big spending, says Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer for Chrysler Group and Fiat. It relies on tossing even half-baked ideas into the public domain and using inexpensive social media to watch what happens.
"When you explore territories where, by definition, you have not been before and maybe not even the competition has been before, then you have to test a little bit what you do," Francois said. "And that's how we like to use social media, and YouTube in this case."
In just its first few days online, "Wisdom" found a level of traction that's rare in auto marketing. Despite spending more on online video content than just about any other major business category, car companies struggle mightily to concoct the magic elixir needed for viral success. The biggest hits, such as Volkswagen's "The Force" and Chrysler's "Born of Fire," started out as Super Bowl commercials, piggybacking on the 100 million viewers who tune in every year and the massive budgets devoted to reaching them.
"Wisdom," by contrast, hasn't been on TV, and Chrysler has no firm plans to use it on TV in the future, Francois says.
It's a sign that "great content" has a way of breaking through, said Seraj Bharwani, chief analytics officer of Visible Measures. "Dodge has done it in a unique way to rekindle the attitude and the emotion that crosses generations," he said.
The spark for "Wisdom," Francois said in an interview last week, came in a request from Dodge brand chief Tim Kuniskis for a video to set up Dodge's New York auto show press conference unveiling the 2015 Challenger and marking the brand's 100th anniversary.
That got Francois thinking: Why is a centennial important? It says something about a brand's longevity but isn't necessarily a great differentiator in the auto industry. Besides, how would marking 100 years of heritage mesh with Dodge's image as an irreverent brand aimed at young males?
The idea for Dodge to spotlight elderly people came in part from a desire to defy the model of typical corporate anniversaries, which Francois said can be "extremely institutional," and to thumb its nose at Western society's fixation on youth.
"I'm always impressed, and not always positively, when I hear marketing pitches bragging about how 'I've got the youngest customer' and how 'I'm speaking to the youth' and how 'We're speaking to the millennials,'" Francois said. "I'm not sure why our society is hiding the aging process."
His original creative brief called for a montage of still photos of old folks and a voice-over with a tone reminiscent of Ram's "Farmer" commercial from the 2013 Super Bowl.
But director Samuel Bayer, who also directed "Born of Fire," had other ideas. He shot one version matching Francois' specs and one live-action spot with actors speaking to the camera.
The latter begins with fragile-voiced centenarians, each one identified by name and year of birth, offering nuggets such as "There are miracles all around you" and "Always tell the truth." A half-minute in, though, those gems take on a mischievous edge: "Don't always do what you're told to do." "Be a bad boy." "Live fast." A haunting soundtrack gives way to an electric-guitar power chord and the sound of rumbling motors and screeching tires. The tag line: "You learn a lot in 100 years."
"I just fell so deeply in love with that, I haven't even seen the other one yet," Francois said.
The 5.7 million online views recorded in the first 24 hours were more than those notched by any of the 10 most-viewed Super Bowl auto commercials of all time in their first day online, according to Visible Measures, which aggregates online video viewing data on sites from across the Web.
Francois didn't anticipate such a reaction. "I personally liked it, but it doesn't mean anything," he said, noting concerns about how well Dodge's brand message would come across in the voices of the elderly. "Other people I respect enormously in the company were more doubtful, and some were the opposite. In this case, I personally was convinced that we were on to something, but it was not sure."
The fact that it went ahead amid doubts helps explain how Chrysler's video works operate. Francois says viral hits such as "Wisdom" and "Seduction" usually stem from an idea, even "half an idea," that comes up during brainstorming sessions.
Those ideas express something about one of the group's brands but might be a little too risky for a big-budget TV launch campaign and might not make sense as a TV commercial. They get by with low production budgets and are posted online, with some limited online promotion for a day or so.
The point of such projects is to gauge the natural traction and reaction from Web surfers in lieu of costly market research or focus groups, Francois says.
"We can't compete with others just replicating what the industry is doing ... beyond commercials, or replicating what we ourselves have been doing in the past," Francois said. "If you want to make a difference, for sure you have to take some risk and experiment, and you have to go a little counterintuitive."
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