June 13, 2014 at 10:28 am

Chrysler 200 reborn: Carmaker readies marketing push

Chrysler Group LLC is known mostly for Jeeps and trucks, but its latest new car may help fill out the company’s unbalanced vehicle lineup.

As the 2015 Chrysler 200 midsize sedan begins to hit dealer lots, the nameplate represents the automaker’s best chance of becoming a player in the industry’s most competitive segment, long dominated by Japanese imports.

“Chrysler has not had a strong car,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at AutoTrader.com. “And it’s very important to the Chrysler brand because they have so few products, and the products that they have are aging.”

The Chrysler brand has just three models: the 200, 300 full-size sedan and Town & Country minivan.

For the 200 to succeed against Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry, Honda Motor Co.’s Accord and Ford Motor Co.’s Fusion — beyond an attractive design, fuel-efficiency and modern interior — Chrysler needs to sell the car and not just the brand.

That’s something the automaker has had difficulty doing, despite hugely popular campaigns like “Imported From Detroit” — which didn’t move the needle for the 200 three years ago — and “Halftime in America” in 2012. Chrysler’s marketing team, headed by Olivier Francois, captured the attention of consumers and planted the Chrysler name in their heads, but didn’t make a strong connection to the vehicles they were trying to promote.

The compact Dodge Dart, the most recent new car offering from the Chrysler company, did not have a viable ad campaign.

This time, Francois appears to have found a balance between attention-grabbing and product-promoting. Its television spots, which debuted this week, highlight the new car’s built-from-the-ground-up-with-American-blood-and-sweat roots. And they show off the 200’s sweeping new exterior and bold interior. It elbows Toyota and Honda by calling the 200 “a car that proves a well-made sedan doesn’t have to cross an ocean to be worthy of American driveways.”

“We are Born Makers,” the ad says, “We made this.”

And “Imported From Detroit” now becomes “America’s Import.”

Chrysler will soon complement the television spots with a digital campaign that will reinforce the car’s newness and the company’s emphasis on quality at the car’s home factory in Sterling Heights.

“Creativity is great, but it literally has to be bolted to the nameplate of the vehicle,” said Mike Bernacchi, University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor. “Chrysler has been great at the general, sweeping, feel-good ads, but they have not been successful at actually promoting the cars.”

Dart's launch fizzled

Chrysler hoped the Dart would thrust the company into the increasingly competitive car market. But the Dart launch, which began in 2012, has been mostly a dud. Dart sales lag competitors such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. This year, sales are down 20 percent from the same period last year, according to Autodata Corp.

Chrysler’s marketing campaign for the compact Dodge, though entertaining, didn’t forcefully pitch the car’s attributes. The Chrysler brand, however, hasn’t introduced a single new vehicle since its 2009 bankruptcy. Three years ago, Chrysler refreshed the 200, which formerly was called Sebring — a much criticized car — but the changes were minor compared to this latest makeover.

The outgoing 200 sells about as well in the midsize segment as electric vehicles do in America, and a good chunk of those sales are to daily rental companies.

Upbeat about prospects

Marissa Hunter, Chrysler’s director of North American advertising, explained that the company’s unconventional marketing strategies don’t always succeed, and that Chrysler continues to refine how it pitches its vehicles.

The Dart, for example, did not have a great campaign. But Chrysler’s “outrageously successfully, silly, stupid Ron Burgundy” Dodge Durango ads took a pop-culture phenomenon, paired it with a known SUV nameplate, and watched as sales soared.

“We think outside of the traditional swim lanes,” Hunter said. “In some instances, the exact execution doesn’t match what we had anticipated.”

Hunter says the Chrysler team is upbeat about the 200’s prospects. The “Born Maker” spots feature a white car — Chrysler typically uses darker cars in ads — underscoring the sense of optimism. The car is about $100 cheaper than the old 200 it replaces, and it’s the only midsize car with a nine-speed transmission and a rotary gear-shift knob.

When equipped with a V-6 engine, the 200 gets a best-in-class 295 horsepower.

khenkel@detroitnews.com
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With the new 200, shown above at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, Chrysler will try to sell the car and not just the brand in its ads. / Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
2015 Chrysler 200 (Jeremy Cliff)