If there is one thing that has characterized the renaissance of Chrysler over the last three years, it is an insistence by the company's leadership to ignore the doubters and forge ahead, following their vision.
That's why Fiat accepted the carcass of Chrysler from the U.S. government three years ago in the first place, why CEO Sergio Marchionne figured he could cobble together a competitive global automotive company from the two, and why he and his lieutenants make interesting — and sometimes daring — product and marketing bets in America.
Sometimes they work out uproariously, like the Chrysler 200 and the Eminem "Imported from Detroit" commercial that debuted during last year's Super Bowl. Other times they have worked out poorly, such as the 2011 debut of the Fiat 500 in the U.S. market, which led to criticism for the Jennifer Lopez music-video-style commercial for the car, and the subsequent ouster of former Fiat U.S. brand chief Laura Soave.
Chrysler and Fiat's CMO, Olivier Francois, says he has learned from these mistakes.
"The [Fiat] brand's brief was wrong, and all the responsibility lies here," Francois told Ad Age. Among problems with the 500's U.S. push were allowing it to appear as what one Chrysler executive called "a chick car," and not getting the vehicle out into willing Chrysler dealerships fast enough. Corrective steps include Fiat's promotion of a new Abarth version, using the old reliable — sex appeal — to attract male customers.
Fiat's lessons even include eating a bit of crow fed to them by smaller car competitors. For instance, Marchionne "underestimated what it takes to set up the dealer network and what it takes for acceptance," Mini USA CEO Jim McDowell told Automotive News.
Meanwhile, these brand impresarios also are keeping things moving for Chrysler, which topped all major automakers in the U.S. market last year on a relative-increase basis by notching a 26-percent sales gain.
The peripatetic and unpredictable Marchionne surprised the assembled journalistic hordes at the North American International Auto Show this week by plopping onto the Chrysler display floor, unannounced, a new minivan concept vehicle that was spontaneously dubbed the 700 C. It wasn't even widely understood whether Chrysler would continue to embrace the minivan segment that it spawned under Lee Iacocca a quarter-century ago, but Marchionne said the company would "start industrializing" the new minivan design later this year.
"The next evolution of the minivan neds to put us right back into the box [where] we launched the minivan," Marchionne said about the 700 C. Its Lost In Space kind of design "is a prime example of what the design office can do," he said.
And, of course, there's wide anticipation about what the Chrysler "marketing office" is going to come up with to fill the 60-second spot purchased by the company during the Super Bowl XLVI broadcast on February 5. It could be a continuation of the "Imported from Detroit" theme ... or not.
One clue: New spots in time for the Detroit Auto Show for the Chrysler 300 sedan, at top and below, which take a page from the Eminem-style playbook, set on the streets of Motor City and appealing to upwardly mobile near-luxury buyers with lines such as, "You know what it means to earn something."
Another new spot for the 300 urges those intrigued by the "quiet" 300 to keep out the "sounds of doubt." Sounds like Chrysler executives have been heeding their own advice.