With today’s official confirmation that Fiat’s US market brand boss, Laura Soave, has been replaced by Timothy Kuniskis, there’s more than a little attention being paid to the Fiat 500’s stateside sales and marketing. Which is something of a curious state of affairs; after all, when the 500 was introduced to Europe, it was quite well-received by the press and public. In hopes of tracking down some kind of explanation for this discrepancy, I hit Youtube looking for ads introducing the Fiat 500 to European markets. The first spot I found can be seen above, and it encapsulates how I feel the 500 probably should have been introduced to the US: with one simple, smart, timeless ad. Instead we got a flurry of disjointed, uncoordinated efforts, with Jennifer Lopez eventually dominating the Cinquecento‘s image almost by default. Could this explain why the 500’s US sales have disappointed?
If so, it’s not entirely clear that Ms Soave is to blame for the debacle. Here, she talks up precisely the values encapsulated in the immensely successful UK ad, and shows off some print ads that seem to deliver similarly timeless messages. But remind me again, who reads print ads? As for the entire “drive-in” concept, I’d hazard that idea had its genesis with Impatto, the since-dumped, event-focused marketing firm that helped lead the 500 launch. Clearly it was not the memorable TV ad that the 500 needed, and clearly Soave should have thought twice about an event-focused launch, especially one centered on such a spurious “urban fad.” But the “drive-in” ads were merely weak; what has dominated perceptions of the 500 in the US is Jennifer Lopez.
And, as we’ve mentioned before, the celeb-happy, J.Lo-synonimizing aspect of the campaign apparently came from Chrysler’s marketing honcho Olivier Francois, not Soave. Back in September, when Fiat was dumping Impatto, AdAge reported
“I respect what she [Ms. Soave] did so far. I may have my opinions about the brand, and they are well known so I’m not going to get into anything here,” said Mr. Francois. “But when you are working with limited resources, you have to invent some out-of-the-box stuff which I am trying to do.”
One out-of-the-box play was working with Ms. Lopez on what former auto-marketing exec Peter DeLorenzo called “quite possibly the worst automotive spot of the last decade, hands down.” Mr. Francois defended the push and said it was not a commercial at all but rather a “trailer” for Ms. Lopez’s new video for the single “Papi.” Mr. Francois said it came about after a discussion he and his friend Ms. Lopez had with her manager Benny Medina, in which they talked about having the Fiat 500 used as the car featured in the chase sequence of the video. Afterward, Mr. Francois said he asked Mr. Medina for the footage and said Fiat would put together a 30-second trailer for the video
Francois is already well-known for his commitment to unabashedly over-the-top marketing, including the Eminem “Imported From Detroit” ads, which do seem to have been more effective than the J.Lo experiment. At the time he defended early negative reaction to the initial Lopez shot by calling it a “trailer.” Of course, the reaction hasn’t improved with the full ads, and negativity hit a breaking point last night, in the wake of Lopez’s 500-themed AMA performance. Clearly Francois’ gamble on Lopez’s starpower has fallen flat, and it would be shocking to see any further collaboration between the two…. and yet Soave, who apparently has had nothing to do with the Lopez decision, is the one being replaced. Why? Well, Francois is close to the big boss, Sergio Marchionne, and worked with him well before the Chrysler takeover. Don’t believe the J.Lo ads had Francois’s French fingers all over them? Check out this Lancia spot he approved a few years back:
In fact, using celebrities on the cheap is something of a well-worn tactic for Francois. AdAge explains
Mr. Francois coyly said he does not like to use “spokespeople.” But his two ever-present BlackBerrys run deep with celebrities who have appeared in his ads: Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Richard Gere and even the Dalai Llama. Of those, only Mr. Gere took a fee, and it was for his charity. Even Eminem sold Chrysler rights to his song for 20% of what he could have gotten just to be part of the ad. Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody directed a Chrysler ad late last year, his commercial directing debut, and voiced the ad as well.
That might work passably when your job is to cheaply up the image of staid, older brands like Chrysler or Lancia. When it comes to launching a unique, fashion-forward car like the 500, you have to let the car speak for itself. As Soave herself put it, “the car is always the hero.” Too bad she failed to explain that to her bosses.