TTAC did not file a full Chrysler Zombie Watch from the launch of Chrysler’s five year business and product plan, but two major points dominated our coverage. The first was this graph that shows 2009 as a trough year for Chrysler sales, with 2010 heralding a major and sustained turnaround in Chrysler’s fortunes beginning next year. Underlying this rosy projection is the second main point of Chrysler’s turnaround, a product/branding strategy that we summarized as “refresh and market like hell.” But refreshes take time, which is something that Chrysler simply doesn’t have. While the automotive world waits for the crucial Fiat-fettled refreshed Chryslers (due to begin arriving at the end of 2010), the “market like hell” portion of the plan is hitting America’s airwaves first, in the form of new ads aimed at reviving “consideration” of Chrysler’s damaged brands. But now that we’ve seen the opening salvos in this $1.4b war on consumer apathy, it’s becoming clear that Chrysler’s journey (no pun intended) of a thousand miles is beginning with a stumble.
The very first of these ads debuted the evening after Chrysler’s seven-hour Powerpoint-fest, introducing the American consumer to the already-infamous tagline “my name is Ram and my tank is full.” For attendees of the seemingly interminable five-year plan presentation, the “my tank is full” line was a piece of inspired humor that generated gales of laughter in the line for the restroom. Within days it was clear that the humor worked even without the toilet-humor angle. Parodies flooded onto Youtube, poking fun at the ad’s meaningless recycling of every truck ad cliche.
This inauspicious start was made doubly so by the fact that the new Ram brand is one of Chrysler’s strongest. Indeed its spin-off has been justified by the fact that the Ram image had overwhelmed the entire Dodge brand. Moreover, unlike Chrysler’s other brands, Ram has/is a product that actually competes in the mass market.
And yet any mention of this product or its real attributes was left out of the Ram spot in favor of the kind of rhetorical flourishes that scream style over substance. “My Name Is Ram” is more internal propaganda for firing up the troops and dealers than anything that might motivate a consumer to consider buying a Ram pickup. With so many staggering challenges facing Chrysler’s brands, Ram marketing should have been the only easy layup. Instead it became a joke that Chrysler could ill afford.
In contrast, the Dodge brand has no recently-released products to highlight, and faces deep existential questions about what it stands for without its horn-headed logo and truck halo. Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles’s presentation at the five-year plan ceremony did nothing to shed light on what exactly Dodge is supposed to stand for, and neither has the brand’s first ad titled “Amplify.”
Autoextremist Peter DeLorenzo initially identified Dodge’s brand image as “being all things to all hip people,” and the Amplify spot confirms this weak brand focus. Needing to explain the positioning of its least-plummeting brand, Dodge’s first ad merely highlights a few attributes of the weak-selling Dodge Journey juxtaposed with images of young hip people “Amplifying” their existence with a staid mommy-mobile. Should any consumer feel moved by the ad to check out a Journey, the only thing they will find “amplified” is their sense of disappointment with the Journey’s weaknesses and the fact that the 25 mpg advertised is not attainable with the AWD option highlighted in the spot.
Though defining Dodge as a hip and youthful brand is a major unmet challenge, bringing perceptions of the Chrysler brand upmarket is by far the toughest hurdle for the Fiat-led Chrysler Group. Attendees of the five-year plan were treated to a video montage expressing the values of Chrysler’s upmarket aspirations that was far more convincing than the Dodge, Ram and Jeep brand presentations. A blend of traditional Chrysler values and European flair, the video worked on the emotional level, probably by failing to show any of Chrysler’s moribund products in favor of models and celebrities exiting mysterious scissor-doored supercars.
But the other indication of Chrysler’s luxury ambitions, fancy new model brochures printed on heavy stock, showed how deeply Chrysler’s fate balances on style over substance. The faux-leather carboard cover of these brochures brought back echoes of “Rich Corinthian Leather,” while the content merely reminded readers that when it comes to Chrysler products, there really is nothing new under the sun. For the next 12 months or so, Chrysler will work to raise expectations of its brand image while rewarding actual shoppers with the same old dead-in-the-water lineup, enhanced only by a few cynical “special editions” to debut early next year.
So perhaps it’s a good thing that Chrysler is not broadcasting Laurence Olivier’s video in advertisment form. After all, its traditional luxury appeals would only have hurt Chrysler’s credibility with shoppers. Instead, the opening shot in Chrysler’s image makeover is its Town & Country spot titled “Beaches,” featuring five female models driving a single child to the beach where a surf-dancing party breaks out. Combining the vacuity of “My Name Is Ram,” with vague lifestyle imagery of “Amplify,” the “Beaches” spot creates a wholly unbelievable scenario which speaks to nobody in the market for a minivan.
Similarly, the Jeep brand’s “Reality” and “It’s Only Hair” spots are so focused on increasing consideration among non-traditional buyers that they create impressions that only serve to confuse potential Jeep buyers. “Reality,” is an edgy statement against America’s voyeuristic consumerism, that ends with the confusingly adamant statement of vicarious living “i live. i ride. i am Jeep.” “It’s Only Hair” makes the same confused point (spending money on your image is stupid if it’s spent on your hair and not your Wrangler) with the added confusion of bringing salon-bopping young ladies into the rugged ouevre of Jeep marketing.
These ads are not merely the missteps of any automaker’s failing campaign, they are the only things standing between Chrysler’s unchecked sales slide and its projections of a turnaround of several hundred thousand units next year. And with a 2010 ad budget set at $1.4b, Chrysler knows it. Any attempt to turn brand perceptions around in the current market environment, especially without new products, is bound to be tough; in this sense, GM’s relatively deep portfolio of newer, more competitive products makes it look incredibly well-positioned by comparison. But Chrysler is already slip-sliding as it climbs its five-year mountain, putting several weak feet forward from the outset. If things don’t fundamentally improve in this respect, Chrysler will be facing a tiny market share, poor consideration and a huge credibility deficit by the time its new products finally arrive.