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Fresh marketing eyes

Chrysler's chief pitchman rejects price-and-features approach

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Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer of Chrysler Group, has created buzz for the brand by defying conventional rules and taking risks.


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In a scene that could have come from the TV series Mad Men -- except Don Draper didn't have the large flat-screen monitor -- Olivier Francois is puffing on a cigarette and reaching for a mouse to unleash a blitz of images.

Rather than a collage of retro scenes from the 1960s, the screen fills with Eminem, Clint Eastwood and Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia mixed with the Dodge Dart, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Fiat 500 and other cars.

"There are 12 commercials here. Twelve," Francois said of the video mash-up. "And there is, unexpectedly, a kind of consistency. It works."

Most of the commercials Francois and his team have crafted stay with most viewers like a vivid dream. They've certainly made people talk. The 2011 Super Bowl spot with Eminem and the Selected of God choir triggered a wave of Motown pride.

A year later, Eastwood delivered his "Halftime in America" pep talk emerging from the shadows. "We find a way through tough times, and if we can't find it, we make one," grunted the master of grit.

Conservative pundits dismissed it as an endorsement of President Barack Obama's auto bailout, but no one forgot it.

Last Sunday's Ram ad, set to the stirring "So God Made a Farmer" address by broadcaster Paul Harvey, has been widely acclaimed, as has the Jeep ad narrated by Oprah Winfrey, which evinces deep gratitude to the men and women in the military.

Chrysler's marketing has come a long way from the days of Lee Iacocca strolling onto a factory floor surrounded by the latest models, delivering the kicker, "And if you can find a better car, buy it."

Francois, a 51-year-old Frenchman and Chrysler's chief marketer since Fiat took control, is an unlikely messenger. But he comes to the art of selling cars with fresh eyes, at least from the traditional American perspective. He rejects marketing that dwells on features and price.

"I was really very shocked by this when I (first) turned on the TV (in the U.S.) -- this bombardment of features, incentives, MPGs and prices ending in 99," Francois said. "I prefer selling cars through a brand rather than selling a brand through its cars."

In November, Adweek named Francois its Grand Brand Genius for 2012, chosen from among 10 finalists. AdvertisingAge, a competing publication, named him Marketer of the Year.

"I frankly think that what they have done is brilliant," said Tim O'Day, executive director of the Yaffe Center for Persuasive Communication at the University of Michigan. He gives Chrysler an A+ for the 2011 "Imported from Detroit" Super Bowl spot, but is less enthusiastic about the 2012 ad with Eastwood.

"I am glad they continue to swing for the fences, but to me, the commercials you see from Chrysler, even today, harken back to the Eminem ad," O'Day said.

Francois, who joined Chrysler in 2009 from Fiat, where he headed the Lancia brand, has generated buzz for Chrysler's brands by defying conventional rules and taking risks. Sometimes, the risks flop.

In 2011, Francois' commercials for the Fiat 500 with Jennifer Lopez were panned by critics who found it hard to believe the megastar would ever drive a small, affordably priced car that barely had room for her purse in back. Lopez herself took heat from other celebrities after she performed on stage at the 2011 American Music Awards with a Fiat 500.

For Francois, it was the exposure that mattered. "Maybe there are a lot of people who don't like her," Francois said. "That is not my problem."

Francois said Lopez helped Fiat quadruple its brand awareness and points out that Forbes named Lopez as the No. 1 most influential celebrity in May.

To be sure, Chrysler and its brands -- Dodge, Jeep and Ram -- still have a long way to go. While Chrysler's sales have increased over the last three years, the namesake brand is outsold by Kia, Volkswagen and Subaru in the U.S.

Francois measures success by sales and feedback from dealers. "According to the last survey I have seen ... we have the highest dealer satisfaction when it comes to marketing," said Francois, referring to a recent National Automobile Dealers Association survey.

Francois likes to hold brainstorming sessions in his office for new advertising campaigns. The meetings can last hours.

"It is a very intimate conversation, typically. The creative reviews are fewer people versus more people," said Marissa Hunter, director of marketing for the Ram brand. "It tends to be a very collaborative process."

During the initial stage, Francois doesn't want to see fancy storyboards or video mock-ups.

"When we have an assignment, we come to him with an idea, a story, and the story describes the visual sequence," said Stan Richards, founder of the Dallas-based Richards Group, the agency behind Ram truck advertising. "It never occupies more than a single, typewritten page."

During the past three years, the roster of musicians involved in Chrysler's marketing reads like Rolling Stone's table of contents. They include Lopez, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Jay-Z, Latin music superstar Juanes, Pitbull and Shakira.

Francois, a producer of French pop music in the 1980s, uses that experience to cast musicians and celebrities in Chrysler's ads. He's also built a network of contacts in Hollywood and the music industry.

But if he can't obtain the rights to use the song he wants, he heads to a recording studio to work with musicians to craft new music.

"I have a good ear, and I know what it means to record music," Francois said. "I know the business part of it, which means that it is easier for me ... to get to the right guy, to get the right deal."

With just two weeks to go before the Super Bowl in 2011, Francois was still vying for the rights to use Eminem's "Lose Yourself," perhaps the rap star's best-known song. Eminem had turned down about 50 offers from companies such as Ford and Apple.

One night, Francois visited 54 Sound in Ferndale, Mich., to talk to Joel Martin, a producer who holds the rights to "Lose Yourself." "He literally brought the pitch to me that night," Martin said. "He was really vivid about his image of the campaign. ... It was crazy."

Martin said Marshall Mathers, Eminem's real name, agreed to a one-time use of the song and to appear in the ad, even though Ford offered four times more money a few years earlier.

"This was the only commercial that wore Detroit on its sleeve. ... It was the only time that Marshall ever appeared in a commercial even close to endorsing anything," Martin said.

-- Detroit Free Press