With Chrysler 'Fixed', Francois Moves On To Fiat

By Dale Buss August 1, 2011

Olivier Francois -- AP Images.jpg

If Olivier Francois needs some inspiration as he takes on new responsibilities as global chief of the Fiat brand, he need only look at what he already has been able to check off his to-do list for the last couple of years: 1) As chief marketing officer of a dynamic global automotive enterprise, keep up with a charismatic, peripatetic, whirlwind of a CEO who’s likely to surprise you every day; 2) Lift a troubled but proud niche Italian automotive brand to new stability as CEO while simultaneously playing a crucial role in reviving an iconic American carmaker; 3) Make significant steps toward creating a luxury-brand identity essentially out of whole cloth for a marque that long has strived for such a persona but never had the chops to achieve it; 4) Position yourself for even more responsibility in the coming consolidation of two car companies that previously didn’t share as much as a taxi to an auto show; 5) Accomplish much of this on airplanes while traveling feverishly back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Achievement No. 4 is much in the news these days after Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne tapped Francois on Thursday to continue his ascension as one of the key figures in the company’s global renaissance and in Fiat’s new, 22-person Group Executive Council. Francois (above) had been CMO of both Fiat and Chrysler in their entireties, and CEO of Fiat’s Lancia brand in Europe and of the Chrysler brand in the United States. Now, the 49-year-old Frenchman will solely run the entire Fiat brand as an important player in the new, fully merged management structure that Marchionne unveiled on Thursday.

Francois also will serve as the company’s “chief creative officer” for all of its brands worldwide. Presumably helping Francois get the promotion was that he already has accomplished much in just a couple of years in demanding dual roles. He has infused Lancia with some badly needed new products, essentially by outfitting some of Chrysler’s reworked models for the European market. And demonstrating a continental flair that deliciously challenged the staid culture of the Big Three, Francois helped give the Chrysler brand a new spark with the bold “Imported from Detroit” marketing campaign.

The brilliant scheme papered over a still-wobbly product line with incredible buzz from the Super Bowl TV ad starring Eminem -- and with a fistful of advertising awards in June from the prestigious international advertising competition held in Cannes, France. Francois shares credit for it with Saab Chehab, the former Ford executive and Francois lieutenant who was promoted on Thursday to fill Francois’s previous shoes as head of both the Chrysler and Lancia brands. But it was Francois who personally appealed to the rap star for his involvement – and who pulled the trigger on the campaign.

Symbiotic Relationship
Arguably, Francois’s efforts are paying off for Chrysler: Its sales grew by 21 percent in the first half over a year earlier, the biggest percentage gain of any major automaker in the United States. The rise came for Chrysler without much yet in the way of significant new products, so it was largely a testament to branding and marketing. “We’re moving very fast and working very hard,” Francois, who came to Fiat from Citroen in 2005, said in an interview with AutoObserver. “I’m working 19 or 20 hours a day,” he said before Thursday’s promotion promised to keep him mostly on the Atlantic’s eastern shore from now on. “I have committees and meetings each and every weekend on either side of the ocean. You need a certain level of dedication to make this happen, which is close to 100 percent.”

If Francois is all-in with Fiat, Fiat is all-in with Francois. Soon after Marchionne maneuvered Fiat into position to take over Chrysler’s carcass from the U.S. government a couple of years ago, in late 2009, he handed Francois two of the most difficult tasks involved: make determinative sense out of the existing architecture of Chrysler’s makes, and sell the Chrysler brand specifically to an American public that always had demonstrated a grasp of Dodge, Ram and Jeep but never knew quite what to make of Chrysler per se.

Before Francois could get to shepherding the “Imported from Detroit” idea to reality, he approached his overall marketing remake of Chrysler on three levels. First, he said, “It was important to let consumers know that we were in business, that we were back, with what basically was a different company, through each and every campaign we made.” For example, the initial advertising effort for the introduction of Chrysler’s first crucial new vehicle, the all new Jeep Grand Cherokee last fall, used the theme, “The Things We Make, Make Us,” meant to communicate what Francois at the time called “a sense of personal pride in creating a quality product.” The effort “was the launch campaign for a new nameplate, and for positioning at the same time: In a clear way it really spoke about the company too. This campaign did some incredible things for our other brands, too, and the dealer network loved it.”

Little Message Packets
Second, Francois explained, “We want absolutely to base all the recovery on rebuilding brand equity because it’s the only guarantee I know of” against reverses. “It involves not only creating brand equity but explaining to the consumer that those brands stood for something different in the past. That takes time, but we’re in the process – especially at Chrysler .We had to reinvent Chrysler, clarify what Dodge stands for, as well as Jeep. And Ram trucks involved the launch of a totally new brand.” So far, for instance, American consumers seem to be accepting the logic and appeal of the break-off of Ram: Sales of the brand rose by 31 percent for the first half.

Vehicles per se were the third area that Francois approached. “From day one,” he said, “we had to keep in mind that we were about to launch 16 new and refreshed nameplates, and we absolutely have to deposit little messages in the consumer’s mind each time we speak, saying that the vehicles are different than in the past.” Each marketing effort Francois hatched, he knew, “had to deliver on those three levels – and we think they have.”

The Eminem spot, which Chrysler internally dubbed “Born of Fire,” ticked off all three boxes for sure. Sales of the 200 have far exceeded those of the Sebring they replaced, even though the car is basically a re-skinned Sebring. More important, Francois said, the gambit was meant “to make our brand and our cars accepted, and beyond, meaning both the brand and the car had to be perceived as desirable and cool. This ‘American coolness’ is essential to our strategy because that’s exactly what imports do not have, and some American brands don’t have as well because their cars are a little bit more commoditized. We wanted to decommoditize our [Chrysler[ brand.”

As it turned out, everything Francois, Chehab and their colleagues threw into the effort – the spot itself, the audaciousness of taking up two whole minutes to present it during the February 6 Super Bowl telecast, the surprise cameo by Eminem, the willingness to depict the mid-winter grittiness of Detroit and to tie the brand and the car so explicitly to the struggling Motor City – comprised something close to pure genius. Francois acknowledges the results, at least. “People who wouldn’t speak with the Chrysler brand CEO before now tell me that it’s the hottest brand in New York and California as well as everywhere else, and they’re interested now.”

We Love Europeans
That sounds about like how the global industry feels about Francois himself these days. Fiat already has one compelling marketeer in Marchionne, a mediagenic superstar whom one publication dubbed an “Italian Elvis.” Yet Francois isn’t far behind him in dazzling industry insiders and media with his savoir-faire and a certain bent for iconoclasm, which serves well as Fiat is attempting to communicate its seriousness about finally climbing the pinnacle to become one of the industry’s most formidable players on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s his dreamy French accent, for one thing. Trained early in music, the Paris-born Francois actually sits with composers and helps with the feel of anthems used in Chrysler ads, including the adaptation of “Lose Yourself” in the Eminem spot. He operates two BlackBerrys filled with phone numbers of celebrities ranging from Richard Gere to Carla Bruni Sarkozy, the French model and wife of the president, both of whom have appeared in Lancia commercials. One buff-book wag even admired the way Francois wears reading glasses that connect at the bridge with a magnet.

Another clear attribute: Francois’s alacrity. He likes to decide fast and to move fast, which came in handy over the last couple of years when he wore so many hats and logged so many thousands of miles in the air. “Being a fast mover and making fast decisions is our culture in Fiat and in Chrysler; it’s part of our meritocracy here,” he said. “The question is: Is moving fast taking a risk? That I don’t know. We’re not gambling with the safety of the company. What these decisions may be – and that’s very important for us – is out of the box, different, bold. The rest of the organization is shaped exactly the same way and by the same principles.”

“I don’t care what kind of meeting you’re in, you’ll always see the wheels turning with Olivier,” said Fred Diaz, who until recently was Chrysler’s U.S. sales chief and then was named president and CEO of Chrysler de Mexico, and continues to serve as chief of the Ram brand. “You’ll be in a conversation with him about a product plan or pricing strategy and someone will say something, and he’ll put four or five comments together, you’ll see him whip out his BlackBerry or pen, and he’ll already have a great idea. And you have to listen to him, because until he gets it off his chest, he can’t sit still. And usually it’s some example of this God-given mental genius he has.”

That Chrysler Problem
Francois got a political-science degree and thought he might enter the French diplomatic corps in the late Eighties. But after earning an advertising and marketing degree from Sorbonnes Celsa, he went to Citroen. Among the things he learned from helping to jockey for share in the bruisingly competitive European auto market was a certain parsimony, which also comes in handy as he tries to revive a stable of brands at a company that Fiat only last month finally took off the hands of the U.S. government. “We’re forced to buy our share of attention from the American public with something other than money,” he said. “You have no other choice than to think alternatively, out of the box. And you have to run twice as fast but burn less resources. It’s all about ideas. That’s the bottom line.”

Francois needed everything left in his tank as he began reshaping Chrysler. Some of the brand’s own nameplates had sold well over the years, such as the K-cars in the Eighties and the Town & Country minivan for a couple of decades. But as a persona, Chrysler never amounted to much, and clearly didn’t live up to the near-luxury positioning that its recent succession of owners had tried to create for it. Everyone still at the company winces, for instance, at Chrysler’s 2004 TV ad that put songstress Celine Dion on the hood of a putative near-luxury minivan-SUV hybrid named the Pacifica. That’s one reason the 200 ad and positioning comprised such a reach for Chrysler.

“We had a chance to hit it out of the park with the Super Bowl, and it was one chance in a lifetime,” said Melissa Garlick, head of advertising for the Chrysler brand. Her boss was willing to “swing for the fences. He’s always challenging the system. He’s crazy enough to take the chances and be creative.”

The Latest Challenge
Of course, there are other ways of looking at what Francois began accomplishing with Chrysler, including backhanded compliments. “They’re doing what they have to do,” said George Rogers, until recently CEO of Team Detroit, Ford’s marketing agency, who was just promoted to global business director of WPP Group. “If you look at the numbers and statistics regarding their products, they really don’t have a great story to tell. And if you don’t have a great product, you’ve got to wrap it in something that will provide some sort of interest and a compelling notion.” Although the 200 “isn’t a bad car,” Ford’s Fusion “beats the hell out of it” as a vehicle, Rogers argued. Chrysler “needs some ‘borrowed interest’ in a situation like that because they don’t have anything else.”

Crucially, Francois had to figure out how to get Americans to take another look at the 300. The “gangster-styled” full-size sedan was one of the few product successes enjoyed by Daimler when it owned Chrysler, and Francois wanted to turn the latest version of the 300 into a reliable mainstay of the brand’s lineup once again. So what he began with the positioning of the 200 he then attempted to extend with a re-positioning of the 300. Francois has made the car an exemplar of “earned luxury,” featuring celebrities who’ve made their own way to riches, including rapper Dr. Dre and Detroit Lions All Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Francois’s appropriation and extension of the “Imported from Detroit” theme as part of TV ads for the 300 isn’t popular with every industry pundit, and the jury is still out on its results. But it’s one more way in which Francois is taking chances.

As Fiat’s new chief creative officer, presumably with refreshed license to propose wild and crazy ideas to Marchionne for any of the company’s brands, would Francois ever take the chance to press Marchionne to star in Chrysler ads, the way the company’s iconic chief in the Eighties, Lee Iacocca, did? That’s not in the plans so far. “We all know that celebrities help to sell and to reinforce messaging in the auto industry,” Francois said. “And for sure he is a celebrity. At least I’m pretty sure we could get a discount from him.”

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openeyes1 says: 1:04 AM, 08.02.11

Sorry Olivier Francois, but you're efforts at Chrysler can be best described as "c'est desastreux", once the novelty wears off on Chrysler's line of bloated gas guzzling hogs, customers will run for the exits. You have done NOTHING to replace the Dodge caliber (should have been your first priority), introduce a SMALLER pick up truck that offers great mileage or produce a line of fuel efficient pocket rockets like the Chrysler of the 80's once did.

Olivier, you will be remembered for sacrificing Chrysler's product lineup for short term gains, and leaving Chrysler's future of smaller vehicles and fuel efficient engines out in the doldrums.

texasbill says: 8:01 AM, 08.02.11

Golly, openeyes, did someone salt your pablum this morning?

Addressing your comments out of order, Francois was CEO of Chrysler brand; the Caliber is a Dodge. Complain to either Ralph Gilles or Reid Bigland.

FYI: The Caliber is going away - that's one of Marchionne's priorities.

You can't change an entire platform in 18 months. In the roughly two years Cerberus owned Chrysler, they gutted product development. They literally didn't have the human resources to develop a new vehicle. What you're seeing now is what was in the pipeline from DaimlerChrysler and it wasn't much.

A compact pickup is a great idea but the numbers don't lie: they just don't sell that well in North America. That's why Ford hasn't spent any money on updating the Ranger and why GM isn't doing very well with the Canyon/Colorado.

Have you seen any truly compact Cadillacs recently? How about mini-Lincolns? Cadillac will have a small car, but not until 2014. Ford has discussed rebadging and upcontenting a Focus for Lincoln (a strategy that shows why Lincoln is such a popular and successful line). Chrysler does need a better small car than the 200 and it's coming.

However, during Francois' stewardship of Chrysler, the brand has at least reappeared on the radar screens of carbuyers and has impressed reviewer with vastly improved quality and interors. For that, he deserves a "Merci pour un travail bien fait!"

openeyes1 says: 8:14 PM, 08.02.11

@texasbill; "A compact pickup is a great idea but the numbers don't lie: they just don't sell that well in North America. That's why Ford hasn't spent any money on updating the Ranger and why GM isn't doing very well with the Canyon/Colorado."

The Ford Ranger is an ideal sized pickup for those who need a small truck, that fits the demands of many small business. Its amazing that Ford has found sales for this antique truck today, considering that it hasn't been updated since 1993 (while Ford has dumped a ton of money in its SUV's and its full size Pickups, and next to nada on its Ranger).

Ford has offered nothing in the way of technologically advanced engines for their Rangers, either underpowered fours or gas guzzling sixes (the four liter six in the Ranger got the same MPG as the one in the full size F150 certainly a negative selling point).

As for Chevy's small trucks forget it, nothing positive to say about them, as GM seemed to forget they even existed.

Concerning the sale of small trucks, Toyota sold over 100,000 Tacoma's in 2010, and that's with gas prices lower than they are in 2011. So a Ranger sized pickup that is well designed, and fuel efficient, will definitely be a big seller in the US (include a European Ford diesel that will be icing on the cake).


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