Olivier Francois, Chrysler Group’s chief marketing officer, on Nov. 15 pushed through the crowd at Lexington Social House, a Hollywood night spot, fashionably late. In typical style, he walked head down, feverishly reading his BlackBerry. He followed Jimmy Iovine, chairman of the Interscope Geffen A&M record label and the man who helped launch such top acts as Eminem and Lady Gaga, to a roped-off VIP area near the dance floor. As champagne flowed and beautiful women hovered around rapper-turned-entrepreneur Dr. Dre, Chrysler’s latest advertising tagline was projected on a nearby wall: “Imported from Detroit.”
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 (GM). 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. (Fiat gained control of Chrysler as part of the company’s 2009 bankruptcy.)
The task doesn’t scare Francois, Chrysler’s updated version of Mad Men’s Don Draper. But instead of making people tear up over vintage ads for the Kodak (EK) Carousel, he wants them to get misty over spots for an uninspiring midsize sedan and pump their fists with American pride for muscle cars and Jeeps.
Eminem’s gritty “Imported from Detroit” ads for the 200 and other emotional spots for its Jeep and Dodge brands are burnishing Chrysler’s image. And though many of the cars haven’t changed much, the marketing has spurred sales. Jeep’s U.S. sales, helped by the new Grand Cherokee, have risen 44 percent this year, while sales of the 200 have more than doubled vs. those of its predecessor, the Sebring, last year at this time. That’s impressive, given that many in the auto press haven’t been crazy about the 200. (Detroit News car critic Scott Burgess called the car a “dog.”) Chrysler upped U.S. ad spending 59 percent, to $621 million, during the first six months of 2011 vs. a year earlier, according to researcher Kantar Media (WPPGY).
In September, Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of both Chrysler and Fiat, tapped Francois to also give some gloss to the Fiat brand. (Fiat returned to the U.S. market earlier this year after pulling out nearly 30 years ago.) The Fiat 500, the hatchback leading the brand’s U.S. return, has sold only about 23,000 cars in North America this year, about half what the company predicted. One of Francois’ first actions after taking over Fiat’s global marketing was to introduce a TV campaign in the U.S. featuring singer Jennifer Lopez, a departure from the Italian brand’s earlier, artsy ads.
The genesis of the JLo campaign was textbook Francois, who previously had used celebrity-focused ads for Fiat’s Lancia car brand in Europe. He and Iovine hatched the idea to use Lopez, the singer and actress who replaced Paula Abdul as a judge on American Idol, while chatting at U2 front man Bono’s house on the French Riviera last summer. Explains Francois of his creative process: “It’s difficult to put ideas in a meeting room.”
Iovine, who also helped strike the deal that put expensive Beats by Dr. Dre-brand speaker systems into some Chrysler 300 models, says the Frenchman has an instinctive feel for what resonates with consumers of pop culture. “He’s completely in the wrong job,” says Iovine, who adds that Francois should be in the entertainment business because of how well he tells stories with music and images. “He’s one of the greatest marketing executives I’ve met in 10 years,” he says.
Still, the JLo campaign has attracted criticism, especially for a spot showing the singer supposedly driving through her old neighborhood in the Bronx when she was, in fact, on a West Coast soundstage. (That led to a New York Post headline: “Hood-winked!”) Francois says the campaign created an almost 500 percent jump in traffic to Fiat’s YouTube (GOOG) page in September vs. the previous month, and views at the brand’s website grew 86 percent.
Auto blogger Peter M. De Lorenzo wrote that while Francois has won buzz for the Chrysler 200 with expensive ads, “frankly the rest of the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep stuff is eminently forgettable and getting lost in the shuffle.” Julie Roehm, who left in 2006 as the head of Chrysler marketing, says Francois has a “lot of good creativity sensibility to him.” But she questions whether he’s innovative beyond traditional forms of marketing such as mass-market TV and whether he has time to deal with “the less glorious and glamorous part,” like handling dealer complaints. It’s an “awful risky game” to do campaigns that “win or lose on the creative” alone, she says.
Michael Manley, a Chrysler executive who has worked under Fiat, Cerberus Capital Management, and DaimlerChrysler control, responds that Francois has helped Chrysler’s brands find their individual marketing voices. “In the past we got cluttered with 30-seconds and a-minute TV commercials with every single brand, loads of messages, always ending with a deal,” Manley says. “Because of that, we weren’t able to maximize the heritage of each of the brands.”