In-flight wireless Internet access and e-mail is both a boon and a curse to Chrysler chief marketing officer Olivier Francois, who says he already works 20 hours a day running marketing for both Chrysler, as well as five of Fiat's brands. His frequent flight time was his last refuge to write and think through other work on the nine brands he manages without endless meetings or putting out fires.
And his email can be intriguing. On Nov. 11, he was flying Delta from Detroit to San Francisco. In flight, he received an email from Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win advising him that Burmese pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi would soon be released from prison in part, read the email, because of the public pressure Fiat had generated through an ad in Europe last year that went viral spotlighting her imprisonment.

Good news, to be sure. But the email meant that Olivier spent the rest of the flight dictating edits by email from 35,000 feet on another ad he ad he commissioned for the cause, shot in Hiroshima, Japan at the 11th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates only days before with the Dalai Lama climbing out of a Chrysler 300 (the 300 is not in evidence, but he shot it in case he wants to run the ad in the U.S.) The new ad, featuring Lancia vehicles, which broke this week on European TV and the Internet, had to be changed to celebrate the political dissident's release (watch it after the jump).

Francois, a self-assured French-born executive whose job is running Fiat's marketing, Chrysler's marketing, as well as serving as CEO of all aspects of the Chrysler and Lancia business as CEO of those brands, appears supremely confident in every thing he touches. And that encompasses a lot: from selecting ad agencies – six in the last year – to actually writing ad copy, composing music for ads and chasing down celebrities he wants photographed next to his cars.

But there is one brand task that Olivier admits is starting to get the better of him: fixing the Chrysler brand messaging. "It is a wonderful brand with great American roots, but finding the idea to reintroduce it...very difficult," says Olivier.

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The crux of the problem is that the Chrysler brand has three vehicles going forward – the Town & Country minivan, the 300 sedan and the new 200 sedan, which Chrysler developed by making substantial upgrades to the wildly unpopular and much criticized Sebring sedan. "Finding an idea that brings these products together in a compelling way just hasn't materialized yet," says Olivier.

No less than four agencies have been working on the problem. It began with Minneapolis-based Fallon, which won the assignment a year ago. When Fallon resigned the business last June to take on GM's Cadillac account. Portland, Oregon agency Wieden & Kennedy, known best for its iconic Nike ads, pitched in. Wieden has created a launch campaign for the 200, including a Super Bowl ad. Now, Francois has Southfield, MI-based Doner, which created Mazda's "Zoom Zoom" ad strategy more than a decade ago, working on it with the company's other agencies.

Whatever ad strategy materializes, it will, and should, feature Chrysler's substantially upgraded interiors, a frequent target of derision. It also has priced the minivan starting just above $26,000, but expect the vast majority of transaction to be over $30,000 when optioned, which will create more distinction between the TC and the Dodge Grand Caravan, which Chrysler say will transact below $30,000. It is out to lower the average buyer from the current age of 58. And it's aim is to wrap the brand around a somewhat vague "design driven technology" idea, especially as it relates to connecting vehicles to smart-phones and the Internet.

The problem for Chrysler, though, is that its UConnect in-vehicle system lags behind the Sync system from Ford. Its brand and pricing position leaves it neither mass-market nor luxury, and puts it squarely against GM's Buick and Ford's Lincoln, whose "premium-luxury-American" strategies have ranged between ineffective to unproven, though Buick sales are up this year on the strength of new models.

Olivier is not afraid of being bold to find the right voice for Chrysler. A recent ad for Dodge created by Wieden depicts George Washington and his Generals facing down the British Redcoats with Dodge Challengers, actually driving the cars into battle. The voiceover, seeming to speak to those who criticized the government bailout of GM and Chysler: "Here are a couple of things America got right. Cars and Freedom."

In another recent move, Olivier took seriously a complaint by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about using a monkey dolled up in a white Elvis Presley suit for a Dodge ad. Instead of scrapping the ad, he came up with an idea to make the monkey invisible, so there was just a little empty suit in the ad that waddled over to a plunger that triggered an explosion of confetti. The change in the ad made news on several networks, was picked up in hundreds of blogs and went viral on YouTube.

Olivier tried to get jiggy with Chrysler a year ago when he re-cut his 2009 Lancia ad shot at the World Summit of Nobel Laureates, featuring Nobel Prize winners such as Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela juxtaposed against Lancia cars, and spotlighting the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi. Francois had Chrysler 300s edited into the ad, and ran it in the U.S.

The CMO was bothered when a news story in Advertising Age, and blogs highlighted his use of Italian ad agency Armando Testa to create and edit the ad instead of a U.S. ad agency. Olivier says the reports about spending U.S. tax-payer money on a foreign agency were incorrect, and surprised him. "Those stories were wrong, but it did show how we can get people talking about this brand, and we need to do much more of that," he says.


David Kiley, an award winning journalist, covers the auto industry from Ann Arbor, MI. He has followed the industry for 25 years, and held posts including Detroit Bureau Chief for USA Today and senior correspondent for BusinessWeek. He is also the author of two books on the industry: Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America [John Wiley and Sons 2001], and Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World [Wiley, 2004].

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