Chrysler may indeed rely on Bob Dylan to create its annual Super Bowl advertising moment this year. And the company may tout a new Chrysler 200 sedan on Sunday, as it did three years ago with its epochal Eminem spot. But don’t count on Chrysler to cling to its worn-out “Imported From Detroit” positioning in doing so.
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A new approach for Chrysler could be blowin’ in the wind this weekend.
Here’s betting that, if Chrysler indeed runs a spot for its new-and-improved 200 during Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday, the ad effectively will represent a final turning away from the positioning that helped a product-thin Chrysler get off its back — but which by now has outlived its usefulness. Chrysler may cling to the “Imported From Detroit” tag line but move away from its spirit.
Hand it to Chrysler CMO Olivier Francois: The Frenchman has become a master at understanding and exploiting American popular culture and marketing.Look at how deftly he took advantage of the pre-release hype for Anchorman 2 last fall with an ad campaign for the new Dodge Durango featuring Will Ferrell, before the actual movie came out in December and promptly disappointed at the box office.
And in regard to the Super Bowl, Francois has followed up the Eminem coup, and the Clint Eastwood star turn in the 2012 Super Bowl ad, by sticking steadfastly with his unique approach to building anticipation for Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad this year: not giving anything away.
Unlike all of Chrysler’s automaker rivals that will be advertising on Sunday and already have sacrificed drama on the altar of social-media buzz, Francois once again has uttered nary a peep about what Super Bowl viewers can expect to see from his company on Sunday. Will it be some declaration about institutional toughness, or maybe a spot focusing on the new Jeep Cherokee, which has become so important to the Chrysler lineup?
Or both? Last year, Chrysler ran brand-themed ads for both Ram and Jeep, but no one necessarily had been expecting two ads from the company. On Friday afternoon, Chrysler announced that it would be showing three ads during the Super Bowl.
Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne provided some vague hint about what to expect in talking to reporters at the North American International Auto Show a couple of weeks ago.
“Someone made the comment to me that I had the right commercial in 2011 and the wrong car,” Marchionne said, according to Bloomberg. “I think we now have hopefully the right commercial and the right car.” So Chrysler may indeed return to the Chrysler brand, and even the 200, in this Super Bowl.
Understandably, Detroiters and other fans of the traditional Big Three automakers were heartened when Chrysler made the city itself the centerpiece of the trailblazing “Born of Fire” commercial in 2011 and of a subsequent long-term campaign to associate the grittiness and determination of the brand and company with the ultimate would-be comeback story: Motown itself.
The campaign became a coup, as “Imported From Detroit” lifted Chrysler and its threadbare product line way beyond their objective merits. It continued to fuel a corporate revival culminating in a Chrysler that now is not only back on its feet but is actually helping its new parent survive by subsidizing Fiat’s woeful situation in Europe with flush profits from sales of Jeeps, Rams and Dodges in the United States.
But Eminem and 2011 were then, and this is now. And for at least the last year, Francois has been signaling a change — and, in fact, beginning to implement a shift — in the brand’s reliance on its association with Detroit.
Francois told me over a year ago that Chrysler advertising even then would begin to emphasize more the “Imported” part of its famous slogan than the “Detroit” part, because new Chrysler vehicles were going to begin demonstrating a never-before-seen worthiness to be actually pitted against imported as well as domestic competitors.
Then, last fall, Francois indicated how that evolution had advanced. “We will” pivot from “Imported From Detroit,” at least the way it had been rendered previously, he told me. Will the Super Bowl provide the marketing platform for making the shift evident? “Time will tell,” Francois said.
“There’s nothing more important to me than showing the world that there is nothing we owe — nothing — to German technology, to Japanese quality or to European flair and style,” Francois declared. “And this is a part of Chrysler’s mission that also was contained in the ‘Imported From Detroit’ tag line.
“And it’s still our brand mission today. This clearly will be our story” in 2014.
The new, vastly improved 2015 Chrysler 200 — unveiled at the Detroit auto show with advanced standard features that make it worthy of comparison with some of the other big nameplates in the segment — is the product that represents the first real fruits of that change. And for the sake of the Chrysler brand, it’s got to prove only the start of a wave of more-competitive vehicles, not the end.
At least in a marketing sense, Chrysler already has begun moving past the “Imported From Detroit” story over the last year. Sure, Chrysler occasionally will bring out some new urban-themed version of its flagship 300 sedan. But the brand’s last significant stake in expressly Motor City-centric positioning was its sponsorship last winter of Berry Gordy’s Motown: The Musical on Broadway.
Since then, Chrysler, for instance, featured Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera in a World Series TV-ad campaign last October that included nary a Motown image. And another Chrysler ad took a subtle but significant step toward the promised emphasis on product attributes that could compete with imports, without explicitly “Detroit” imagery.
“It’s been said you have to cross an ocean to find a vehicle with safety, reliability and quality,” the voiceover for the brand TV spot said. “The bar may have been set over there, but when it comes to raising it, we’ll take it from here.”
Last fall, in national advertising for its year-end promotional blitz that Chrysler has called “The Big Finish,” ads featured the gospel-choir meme that had become a staple of the Detroit-based campaign. But based on actual imagery in the ad, the choir could just as well have been singing in Baltimore or Eugene as Detroit.
One more thing: It was a lot easier for Chrysler to produce great brand vibes by attaching itself to a renascent Detroit when the backdrop was the continuation of an idealized, decades-long attempt at urban revival that was making enough progress to be romanticized — and whose specific shortcomings were sketchy enough that the Chrysler campaign couldn’t really be undermined by them.
But Detroit’s very public bottoming-out over the last year, including a bankruptcy filing and ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s high-profile trial, may have helped Francois conclude that it’s finally time for the Chrysler brand to move on.
The “Imported From Detroit” campaign has done so much for the self-image of Detroiters that many have recoiled over the last several months at the suggestion that it’s outlived its usefulness, with auto reporters scurrying to Francois to ask him to “say it ain’t so.”
But to quote the lyrics of another classic act from the Sixties who weren’t Bob Dylan, “This is the end, my friend.”