Fiat Pushing Fashion Connections To Boost Brand Image

The automaker is linking up with Gucci to get more fashionistas interested

With Fiat 500 sales lagging behind projected figures, mostly due to the sluggish opening of studios across the country, Fiat USA CEO Laura Soave and her team are trying guerrilla marketing to put the Italian brand on the map in America.

During Fashion Week, Fiat is going to push the Gucci connection further.

By giving the general public the tactile experience of entering these adorable and modish cars, and unique perks like the August event to rent them out for drive-in movies in the middle of Manhattan, Fiat hopes to plump up its sales by pushing the Cinquecento, aka the 500, as a reinvented classic with a serious fashion bent.

Fiat's initial sales target for the U.S. was 50,000 for 2011, but numbers probably won't reach that high. The Italian automaker, now part of the Chrysler-Fiat alliance, reported just 7,982 units sold at the end of July.

Sales are picking up, though, as Fiat gets more Fiat sales studios open, with the aim of having 100 locations selling Fiats by year-end. CEO Soave said the openings have been delayed a bit while she and her team fine-tuned the selling environment in the showrooms.

"Our first quarter, we didn't have all of our studios up, because it's so important for us to have the right experience," she recently told AOL Autos while sitting inside a Fiat cabrio 500 in Times Square. "Again, we're a brand new brand [to most Americans], so we wanted to ensure that the customers, when they're going into the studio for the first time, get the best experience."

With dozens of studios set up in major markets, it's time to drive foot traffic.

Fiat Goes To The Movies

Fiat last month had 33 cars on 43rd St. at 7th Avenue in the heart of the Big Apple. Fox also allowed Fiat to use the Times Square Jumbo-tron to post live pictures, tweets and other promotional materials. In addition to a stylish Italian cafe set-up and an Astro Turf bocce ball court, Fiat granted premium drive-in movie seating to "Ever-After," "Romeo+Juliet" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman"--all remakes of classic stories, an attempt to frame the 500 in a creative light.

"These are movies that have withstood the test of time and are true classics and have been kind of modernized," Soave said. "And so what better place to watch them than in a vehicle that was a classic once and has been modernized?"

Part of the fashion timelessness means attaching Fiat to the iconic aura of Times Square, itself reinvented with pedestrian thoroughfares in 2009. The concept of drive-ins, too, is a hearkening back to an era gone-by, and this is an overt message to plug the Fiat in a revived retro light.

Because this image is such an important part of this car's billing, fashion and personalization -- with a slew of exterior and interior color choices -- are essential to Fiat's strategy. To amp up the style bent of this car, a major selling point, Fiat has partnered with Gucci for a special edition Fiat, first revealed last year at Milan Fashion Week, and now a focus of New York Fashion Week this month.

Gucci and Fiat for Christmas

The exterior features Gucci's iconic green and red striping, and the Gucci logo will adorn the wheels and interior seat fabric. The price premium for the Gucci model hasn't been announced, but it will hit in December in time for Christmas. Fiat is only making 500 of the Guccis worldwide.

Last night amidst the hub-bub of Fashion's Night Out, AOL Autos drove a Gucci Fiat cabrio through Manhattan. The bucket seats seemed to create the effect of extravagant cushiness, like sitting on a dozen Gucci purses. Whether buyers will shell out the $2,000 premium some insiders say the Gucci model will warrant depends on personal taste.

The Gucci inspired 500 is targeted at "the type of customer that is really fashion forward and brand conscientious and looking for just something to really make them stand out and be a little more unique," Soave said. "The Cinquecento itself can be built in over 500,000 ways and it can really be a reflection of you. The Gucci partnership just takes it one step further."

This fashion attention doesn't mean that women are the most likely 500 buyers. Males have so far made up 70% of sales--particularly attracted by the Sport model with aggressive-looking front-rear fascias and red brake calibers. "That does not look at all like a chick car as you would think," Soave said.

Be that as it may, the studios faring the best are the ones led by women. Cinquecento customers are going in a couple of times before making purchases and relying on their homework, not impulse buying.

"They're very experiential," Soave said of the studios. "I think also the whole process of being very customer driven, the experience in the show room is a very low pressure, low-haggle type experience. I think there's just a little more patience there with them developing those relationships."

In addition to the Gucci 500, the 500 Abarth arrives in the first quarter of 2012 with a turbo 1.4-liter MultiAir engine that could produce between 140 hp and 170 hp. A battery-powered 500 will appear at the end of 2012. The personalization factor is something to play up even as competitor MINI Cooper comes in 10 models.

The style and affordability seems to be the comparative advantage. "That's what this brand is all about: We can provide that experience, that style and the innovations in the vehicle that you typically find in a much more expensive brand," Soave said."I think personalization is key--being comfortable with who you are. In this small car segment, it's always been a little more utilitarian."

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