January 5, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Chrysler brand chief makes controversy

Olivier Francois oversees both Chrysler and Fiat's Lancia brands as the new head of marketing. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Auburn Hills -- Chrysler Group LLC shook up its brands, the executives overseeing them and ended longtime ad agency contracts -- and now a Frenchman from Italian partner Fiat SpA is charting a new marketing direction implementing strategies honed in Turin.

Olivier Francois, who already was the marketing chief for Fiat and head of that automaker's Lancia brand in Europe, now finds himself in charge of the Chrysler brand and as the company's marketing chief in Auburn Hills. But his early days on the job here have been marked by controversy as he strives to better define each brand with new ad agencies, dropping longtime partners; and forgoing a press conference during media days at next week's Detroit auto show in Chrysler's backyard.

Today, ad work is being done by a slew of new agencies, and their commercials have raised concerns among dealers that they don't focus enough on the vehicles. One Chrysler ad has been particularly criticized because it was a reworked Lancia brand ad.

All the change has led to skepticism by some about what the new marketing guy is doing.

A perplexed Francois has an answer: duplicate what he did for Fiat, but on a shoestring budget that requires combining resources where possible and trying to come up with something that stands out in a crowded marketplace.

Francois said in an interview with The Detroit News that he needs to better understand the American mood and culture as he redefines Chrysler's message to consumers and quell some misconceptions about his strategy.

But with the kind of unbridled energy that makes it difficult to stay seated for a full hour, Francois exudes confidence in applying the Fiat model at Chrysler.

One agency not enough

In Italy, Francois works with four ad agencies, one for each Fiat brand. The practice was adopted at Chrysler, which also now has four brands with the separation of Dodge into Ram truck and Dodge car; Chrysler and Jeep.

Changing ad agencies was not about the competence of past companies, he said. "It is not about the quality of what's been done. The idea is simple: You need more agencies for more brands. It can't be done by one agency."

The first ads have not all been well-received. They center on brand image and have been criticized by dealers like Fred Frederick for not focusing on product and price.

Frederick, who owns Chrysler dealerships in Laurel and Easton, Md, said he has complained to Chrysler executives that ads must stick to featuring the vehicles "to get the consumer interested in your product."

Francois expressed surprise at the criticism, saying early brand spots were just the first step and product ads are coming.

" 'My name is Ram' is not a product ad. It's a 'new brand is born' ad," Francois said. "It was a statement and it's done. It was not supposed to sell anything."

Likewise, early Jeep ads were to evoke images of freedom.

"All ads going forward are totally product oriented," and in the "appropriate tone of voice for each brand," Francois said of about 15 recently shot commercials to air in upcoming months.

Optimism over ads cautious

Grabbing his computer, Francois played commercials with Ram pickups hard at work, kid-friendly features in minivans, and the luxury interior of the Chrysler 300. Upcoming Dodge car ads have a dry humor to them.

Frederick, the dealer, however, is skeptical. In 40 years selling Chrysler cars and trucks, he said he has heard it before. But he is willing to give Francois the benefit of the doubt.

Frederick's instincts are right, said Mike Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

"We are in a product intensive time," Bernacchi said. "I can't remember a time when there was so much talk about products, technology and gizmos in them."

Ever since the events that resulted in the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors Corp., brand and emotional advertising have taken a backseat, he said. What are needed are no-nonsense ads to tell consumers what they can buy and drive.

That would disqualify new Chrysler ads, for example, that call for the release of Burmese Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The ad, created for Lancia, was reworked for Chrysler.

It was never meant to be a traditional ad, Francois said. Fiat was a sponsor of an event for Nobel Peace laureates and provided Lancia and Chrysler vehicles for attendees including former Soviet Union and Polish Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa.

The Lancia ad agency and talent donated their time, Francois said. "It is a good cause and costs nothing and is good for the world and for Chrysler. I know what I spent: nothing. For billions you couldn't buy four presidents."

Francois defends the new Chrysler ads, too, and is planning to capitalize again July 18 during an international day of recognition for Nelson Mandela, former South African president.

Mandela will be given Chrysler and Lancia cars that day to drive and, once again, cameras will roll.

"I don't know what will do with it yet," Francois said. "Maybe a film like we did for Nobel, but for sure we are going to use it, likely for both brands in the U.S. and Europe."

It is the kind of move that will help Chrysler "stand out in a crowded marketplace to compensate for the fact we are investing less than others."

In a further bid to stretch each dollar, future vehicles will be developed that both the Chrysler and Lancia brands can use.

Dealer Frederick is cautious in his optimism, saying new Fiat products for Chrysler will "only be helpful if they launch and market them properly."

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Olivier Francois is fielding criticism over new Chrysler ads that lack a ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)