Street Smart: 5 Questions With Tim Kuniskis of Dodge, Chrysler

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Dodge Demon 2018

Even as rumors surge about whether Chinese automakers might be interested in buying Fiat Chrysler, the brand stewards at FCA have their heads down, attempting to add to their remarkable record of building equity in the stable of Jeep, Ram, Dodge, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Chrysler.

This week, the highest-profile of such efforts is by Tim Kuniskis, who heads the passenger car brands of Dodge, SRT, Chrysler and Fiat for the transatlantic automaker. Adding to its performance chops, Dodge staged one of its highest-profile experiential events over the weekend, what one internal wag called “Woodward-stock”: The Enthusiast Network’s Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge.

Affiliated with the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, Dodge took over the northern reaches of Woodward Avenue—the Detroit area’s main surface-street thoroughfare—and staged red-meat style events for gas-power mongers that included street-legal drag racing, a car show, a simulated ride in a high-powered Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, mechanical bull rides and more. Last year, 30,000 enthusiasts attended the event, and Kuniskis told brandchannel he expected more this year.

“Beyond brand building,” Kuniskis said, with the Roadkill Nights event “we’re selling 700- and 800-horsepower cars to the general public.”

On the other hand, Kuniskis and his team also have been busy marketing the Chrysler Pacifica as they attempt to use the two-year-old vehicle to redefine the sleepy hybrid segment around hyperfunctionality. Recent brand-building gambits have included the launch of a partnership with Sesame Street as well as the announcement of a new partnership in San Francisco under which Kango—an on-demand ride service for kids whose drivers are thoroughly vetted—will use Pacifica Hybrid minivans under an affordable lease.

Tim Kuniskis FCA

brandchannel talked with Kuniskis about mid-summer marketing of Dodge and Chrysler:

What’s the significance of your sponsorship of Roadkill Nights for the Dodge brand?

Every brand does experiential marketing. About four and a half years ago we decided to take Dodge down to the core essence of what it does well and make mainstream performance the main lens for what it stands for. So we couldn’t keep doing experiential marketing in the same tried and true way; it just doesn’t fit.

So three years ago we’re going to make this big [Dream Cruise-related] tentpole event part of our experiential marketing instead of doing a bunch of little things. It can transcend way beyond the footprint of the actual experience and get media and social-media attention. We tested the concept at the Pontiac Silverdome three years ago and didn’t really promote it—and 10,000 people showed up. Then last year we said you know, there’s something to this; let’s take it to the next level. Let’s see if we could actually shut down Woodward Avenue. And the outcome is we had the perfect venue with [Woodward] and the city of Pontiac and [the Michigan Department of Transportation], and it became a really unbelievable event.

[Fans] walk away saying that Dodge gets me, that Dodge understands I like to cruise in my car and go to the drag strip and do burnouts. That helps us conquest business. Plus a million people who are interested in performance vehicles, not vehicles in general like at an auto show, are coming to see some part of the Dream Cruise. A million people who are laser-focused on what we do as a brand.

So clearly you’re following the strategy for Dodge that was hatched a while ago. But pivoting to the Chrysler brand: Three years ago, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne laid out a plan in which Chrysler was going to become a mainstream brand based on sedans. Obviously, your thinking about the Chrysler brand has changed since then, given that you’ve discontinued the Chrysler 200 sedan, that the full-size 300 sedan is aging and that Chrysler’s only new vehicle is Pacifica. Chrysler has become the Pacifica brand, right?

A lot has changed since that original plan. There’s been a massive shift in the market toward SUVs and away from cars. If you look at the last eight years the percentage of the industry who bought passenger cars went from 42 percent of every vehicle sold, to 32 percent, a 25-percent drop in people buying that type of vehicle. That can’t be ignored.

But you have to look at what’s going on inside those numbers. Not every car has taken that drop, such as the [Dodge] Challenger and Charger—they’ve actually grown and increased volume during that period. Cars are supposed to decay over time, especially at the same time that segment is declining. But what about the 300? It’s in the full-size sedan segment that is down more than 30 percent in the last two years, yet 300 sales are only flat—and I say flat is the new up. It’s because the car is different.

With Dodge we said we’re going to be the performance brand in our portfolio. Performance is an attitude. We’re going to build awesome cars and then trickle down that attitude to other cars, cascade that attitude and personality through the whole brand. I make exactly the same argument for Chrysler: If the model for building a brand for Dodge is Chargers and Challengers, with Chrysler it’s family, functionality and fuel efficiency—and nothing does that better than Pacifica. We can build the positioning around that, products around this brand should be tied to that just like Dodge is tied to Charger.

So how are you evolving the Pacifica and Chrysler brand strategy:

At this moment in time the brand is Pacifica. The 300 is there and holds its own but it’s just like Caravan [minivan] in Dodge: 300 is not perfectly aligned with where the Chrysler brand is going forward but it’s selling and making money and we’re happy with it.

For Pacifica, the strategy really is: It’s a minivan, and minivans are sold on functionality, the interior, and being easier for my life.  They’re function and use products. So how do I market a function and use product? That’s not an easy thing to do. You can do a  wheelie in a Dodge Demon and get you excited about that. But how do you sell on the functionality of a product that’s going to make your life easier? Jim Gaffigan and our “Dad Brand” were a good way to kick it off: He’s looking better with his family by trying to do this for them. Our “Street Smarts” video series [hosted by Gaffigan] was a good follow-up to that.

bc: So how does a Sesame Street partnership help?

Kuniskis: It’s a perfectly logical next step. They are absolute masters at entertainment education. They have perfected a way to make learning fun, and did it with kids who are now in a family-formation stage, having a second child, and need a minivan; they learned through Sesame Street. So I can talk about all the features that are difficult to convey and use Sesame Street which brings back a memory, and they say, “I’ve got it.”

bc: How about Kango?

Kango is a perfect, nearly experiential extension of that. If minivans are sold on function and use, the biggest growth opportunity for us as a company is on the  West Coast. We get amazing market share in the Northeast and South and Midwest, but just OK market share on the West Coast. In the segment it is Honda, Toyota and us, so this is a conquest opportunity for us. We have a hybrid minivan and they don’t, and 40 percent of hybrids are sold in California, and it’s the largest minivan market in the country. So if I can have a hybrid minivan showing up at their home and driving their kids, they see functionality and use and people at a soccer game or play, and it’s a perfect experiential extension of everything we’re trying to do with our [marketing].

Right now Kango is just in San Francisco. They’ve been there for about two years. They’ve done—by their numbers—tens of thousands of rides in two years. That’s not an Uber number. This is a very focused ride share of family vehicle transportation for your kids. It’s an impressive number that they’ve been able to do in one market.

This is different than Uber. Not only are the drivers all vetted and backgrounds checked, but you can meet the driver in advance. You want to set up every Wednesday, this guy is coming to get my son and take him to soccer practice? You can do that. It’s a really unique feature.


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