Editor's note: Chrysler brand CEO Saad Chehab was named the co-winner of the 2011 Crain's Detroit Business Newsmaker of the Year award. The following is a profile published today by the affiliate of Automotive News.
DETROIT -- How did three car guys from Lebanon, France and Italy use an Oregon advertising agency, a pair of white rappers and the cachet of Detroit's gritty urban pride to reinvent the image of an ailing automaker based in a distant suburb?
It sounds like the start of a complex joke, but it was deadly serious for a post-bankruptcy Chrysler Group LLC trying to get Americans to buy its cars again.
As Chrysler brand CEO Saad Chehab tells it, the scenario began with Sergio Marchionne sitting at home and watching Detroit's Kid Rock perform his hit "Born Free" live during the American Music Awards in November 2010.
Marchionne, the CEO of Chrysler Group and his native Italy's Fiat S.p.A., called Chehab to suggest they somehow tap into Detroit's music pride for Chrysler's forthcoming advertising campaign.
"He happened to witness the audience reaction to that song," said Chehab, head of Chrysler marketing at the time and a Beirut native who grew up in Detroit. "That was really the moment this story started taking shape into execution. He said, "I want to tell the story of this city and this company to the country.' It literally was triggered that night."
The result was the automaker's "Imported from Detroit" advertising campaign that launched with a two-minute commercial called "Born of Fire," using rapper Eminem during Super Bowl XLV in February.
The spot, the longest to air during any Super Bowl, was seen by the largest TV audience in U.S. history. It used the edgy attitude of post-industrial Detroit as a point of pride to get viewers to consider the automaker's cars again.
Reaction nationally was instant: Detroiters and industry observers hailed it, critics were impressed and views and excited conversation exploded on YouTube and social media.
The commercial transcended mere car selling, allowing the city and region to latch onto it as if to say, "Yeah, we're from Detroit.' "
A Hail Mary?
For Chrysler, however, it was something of a Hail Mary.
"Sergio Marchionne's words and culture made it perfectly clear we had only one chance," Chehab said. It was his job to execute Marchionne's vision.
That's why Chrysler went with the 2002 hit hip-hop song "Lose Yourself" from the movie "8 Mile" -- the Eminem biopic -- as the commercial's music. The lyrics include the stanza, "You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo."
Chehab, who also is the head of the Lancia brand and a member of the Group Executive Council for Fiat, said the idea to use Eminem and his music was much discussed internally, but the Super Bowl spot went from concept to airing in barely two months.
The commercial begins with a voiceover talking about Detroit being different from flashier cities, and the spot shows Eminem driving a Chrysler 200 past downtown landmarks. It ends with him walking into the Fox Theatre, where Grosse Pointe's Selected of God choir is singing a gospel version of "Lose Yourself" and Eminem turns to the camera to say, "This is the Motor City, and this is what we do."
It has nearly 14 million YouTube views on Chrysler's official channel.
More important, it helped sell cars. Chrysler sold almost 1.4 million cars and trucks in the United States last year -- a 26 percent gain over 2010 in a market that posted an overall sales gain of 10 percent. The Chrysler 200, the car Eminem drives in the Super Bowl commercial, became Chrysler's sales leader among cars with 87,033 units sold in 2011.
Chehab, 44, has an architecture degree from the University of Detroit Mercy, and he and his future wife hung out in the "80s at The Shelter, the basement music venue that plays a prominent role in "8 Mile."
A young pre-Eminem Marshall Mathers spent time honing his musical craft at the iconic venue. It wasn't clear initially in Chrysler's planning that he would be in the commercial.
"We were not thinking at the time he would be in the ads," said Chehab, who worked at Ford Motor Co. until going to Chrysler in 2009. "We just wanted to talk about some parallel between Eminem's story and Chrysler. We didn't want it to be about a star or a celebrity driving a car.
"We wanted to tell the story about the city and its people. He's one of those people that have never left where he's from. His understated personality somewhat mirrored the understated personality of Marchionne. It became natural for him to be part of the story."
It was pitched to the rapper. Said Chehab: "His response was, "I'm in.' "
The choir and much of the film crew didn't know Eminem was going to be in the shoot.
"The reaction you see (from the choir) is very organic," Chehab said. "The view that you see of him walking into the theater is the first. It was surreal and extremely emotional."
The commercial was created by Chrysler's advertising agency, Portland, Ore.-based Wieden+Kennedy, and cost an estimated $9 million to $10 million to produce and air.
Also instrumental in creating the commercial -and and the campaign was Frenchman Olivier Francois, president of the Chrysler brand at the time who now heads the Fiat brand.
The spot won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Commercial, and four Gold Lions at Cannes Lions 58th International Festival of Creativity.
"The Detroit story mirrored the story of many industrial cities around the country, with the economic struggles they're going through at the same time," he said. "Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana... they were waiting for a story like this to be told. It resonated with folks in L.A., Miami and so forth. It was this forgotten city, maybe we should take another look at.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of here anymore."