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"We’re Detroit Kids": Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne On An Ad-Supported Turnaround

At an event in Ohio recently, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and Wieden + Kennedy’s John Jay talk about the impact of the "Imported From Detroit" campaign on the fortunes of the automaker over the past two years.

They may only run two minutes in length, these famous Chrysler Super Bowl ads, “Imported From Detroit” and “Halftime In America,” but they play like blockbuster movies.

This is especially true when they’re projected on a giant cinema screen in a massive Ohio State University auditorium larger than the Ziegfeld Theatre in Midtown Manhattan. The ads, one featuring Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood, the other, rap superstar Eminem, dazzle the thousand-plus crowd rolling cinematography of gritty Detroit landscapes, a slow-building soundtrack and passionate dialogue about an 87-year-old American automaker at death’s door, a once-thriving Midwest city plunged into economic ruin, and the iron bond they form with a pledge to return to greatness--together.

Watching on a Monday night with the Columbus audience are Sergio Marchionne, chairman and CEO of the Chrysler Group and CEO of Fiat S.p.A., and one of the leaders of the agency that created the ads, John Jay, global creative director at the Portland, Oregon-based Wieden + Kennedy.

The ads have been wowing viewers and gathering awards since "Imported From Detroit" debuted during the 2011 Super Bowl. More importantly, they’ve helped excite consumers and revitalize Chrysler’s brand identity as well as the very culture of the Chrysler community itself. For the two years the campaign has run, Chrysler has posted sales increases. In its winning entry into the ad industry’s award for marketing effectiveness, The Effie Awards, Chrysler stated: "The success of this campaign has contributed significantly to the company’s sales growth over 2010, and as a result of this success, Chrysler has paid off their government bailout six years early."

For Marchionne, the success of the ads speaks to two things: the importance of honesty and the utter lack of pity in the message.

“One of the things that I’ve always believed in is, we can never ever do or say something that was untrue of ourselves,” Marchionne says, speaking prior to his on-stage conversation with Jay, inside the black box performance hall behind the exhibition galleries of the Wexner Center for the Arts. “I think the first ad with Eminem was just about putting it on the table. It talked about a bunch of scruffy guys who got beaten up, got their act together again and started a very slow process of a comeback, but it was honest.

“I don’t know if I will talk about this tonight but one of the things that I wasn’t looking for was pity or sympathy or like woe is me stuff. I said this is garbage. If we’re going to do this, we’re just going to tell it exactly as it is.”

Marchionne arrives looking just as one expects. His trademark black crewneck sweater drapes his bulky frame. His hair is long, slightly shaggy, tickling the back of his neck. Forget the private jet and all the CEO trappings and you can picture him filling cans of soda in the vending machine. It’s why he can walk the factory floor, look his rank-and-file workers in the eye and relate.

On the other hand, W+K’s Jay is urban chic, stylish from head to toe in a well-tailored suit and buffed shoes. Standing together, they come off as a miss-matched pair. Yet, collaboratively, they’re responsible for bringing Chrysler back to life.

“There was tremendous pride in the community despite being down and despite being counted out,” Jay said, speaking earlier in the afternoon while waiting for Marchionne’s arrival. Holding my elbow for greater emphasis, Jay reiterated the importance of honesty in Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit” and “Halftime In America” ads. He also recognized the company’s history of innovation as key to giving the brand a new lease on life. “As we dig deeper, we understand the DNA of Chrysler," says Jay. "We understand from the very beginning how innovative Chrysler was. They were always the company that did things a little differently. So we studied their DNA and they were always about innovation.”

True to his ‘round-the-clock schedule, it’s worth noting that Marchionne had kept everyone waiting while he completed a couple of promised tasks on the ground in Ohio. A couple of miles away from the Wexner Center and its adjoining auditorium, he visited The Ohio State Center for Automotive Research (CAR), a worn, brick classroom building that opens into a large testing area and a separate sheet metal garage. The facility looks like someone’s cluttered repair shop but does close to $10 million in annual research work for just about every major automaker. Afterwards, Marchionne skipped away to a Wexner Center conference room for a private meeting with Ohio Governor John Kasich.

In the meantime, everyone waited including Jay, anxious to meet Marchionne for the first time; a trio of auto journalists; Ohio State University dignitaries and workers from local Chrysler dealers enjoying a separate party at the café space on the opposite end of the Wexner galleries.

Talking privately in a corner of the room, Gualberto Ranieri, Senior Vice President, Chrysler Group Communications used the opportunity to bring the Chrysler news cycle up to date.

The launch of the all-new Dodge Dart is underway and people are responding well to the first auto to be designed completely from the Chrysler-Fiat team using elements of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

Work continues on innovative vehicles including North America’s Only OEM Compressed Natural Gas-powered Pickup, the Ram 2500, and there are deliveries of demonstration fleets of Chrysler Town & Country plug-in hybrid minivans.

Ranieri admitted to looming challenges for Chrysler including a depressed European economy but he also painted a bright future with plans to expand the Jeep brand worldwide.

As if on cure, Marchionne arrived with Ohio’s governor at his side, taking time to talk privately while posing for photos with local Fiat dealer owners.

Marchionne agrees that Chrysler and Detroit are linked, with the company moving its Great Lakes Business Center to downtown Detroit and renaming the Dime Building the Chrysler House.

“That’s who we are, we’re the Detroit Kids,” he says without missing a beat. “I have no problem with originating out of Detroit.”

He also agrees that for Detroit to once again become a vital and great city, people have to act. “This is not going to be a miracle. It is going to happen because people like us get off their butts who can get stuff done. So stick your neck out and do stuff. It won’t be perfect the first time but if you don’t start it will never get done. You need to start.”

Before heading off for the public talk, there’s also the chance to ask Marchionne a key question. Yes, the ads excited car buys to return to Chrysler dealers but how did ads change the spirit at Chrysler itself?

“Because of the fact that we were that frank and that honest about ourselves, people related,” he says. “Because the whole house saw themselves in the ad and so it developed pride about being who we are. We’re not bad people.”

Later, watching Marchionne on-stage, delivering a detailed speech behind a podium, it’s clear that up close and personal is when he truly comes alive. Still, there are rare moments of public candor about missed deadlines prior to the Super Bowl and the rush to find the right music. When asked by an audience member if Chrysler ever plans to compete with Audi or BMW with its own luxury brand, Sergio generates some laughs with an abrupt “no” before detailing the exact reasons why.

The event comes to a close and handlers prepare to drive away the Chrysler cars displayed outside the Mershon Auditorium.

Columbus, Ohio is a Midwest City in the midst of swing state politics so it makes sense as Marchionne leaves right after the program, in his place arrives President Obama on Air Force One and Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas for a large rally the following day.

President Obama will talk about the auto bailout; he’ll mention Ohio autoworkers including Chrysler workers at the Jeep plant in Toledo. After all it’s half time in America; half time in Detroit, half time at Chrysler. As far as what’s next, for Obama, for Sergio, well, it’s anybody’s guess. One thing is certain: work is already underway on Chrysler’s next Super Bowl ad.

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1 Comments

  • miltonreeve

    Canada kids maybe. Socialist taxpayer dependent sell outs. What do you make in Detroit?