IRON Branding

Fiat boss and FCA global marketing chief Olivier Francois talks to Wheels about harnessing the power of celebrity to change brand perceptions

WORDS TOBY HAGON MAIN PHOTO THOMAS WIELECKI

WHEELS interview

Fiat boss and FCA global marketing chief Olivier Francois talks to Wheels about harnessing the power of celebrity to change brand perceptions

AS THE Pope smiled for TV cameras while stuffed into a very unlikely Popemobile – a Fiat 500L – it was easy to envisage Olivier Francois’ fist punching the air at the marketing coup. Few companies could convince the world’s top Catholic into their wares, especially when it’s one of the world’s smallest cars.

A few months earlier I’d been chatting to the Frenchman in charge of Fiat, a passionate marketer who also controls the external image of other Fiat Chrysler Automobiles brands such as Jeep, Dodge, Ram and Chrysler.

Francois is responsible for some of the more daring and memorable car commercials in recent times. Think Charlie Sheen racing Abarths in his house, Jennifer Lopez cruising New York in a 500, P Diddy in the desert, Clint Eastwood in a Chrysler and our own Elle Macpherson plugging the Fiat 500 in return for cross-promoting her US-based Fashion Star TV show.

Francois loves thinking in the here and now, finding people who mesh with the brand he wants them to promote, but with a mutual benefit.

“I didn’t hire Charlie Sheen; it was the moment of Charlie Sheen,” he explains, shuffling forward on his seat as he remembers being in the actor’s Malibu mansion while he was under house arrest.

“Forget about women and drugs and all this; all of America knew he was under house arrest because of speeding, because he likes driving too fast.” Hence the purpose of the commercial. As Francois describes it, “I had the smallest supercar, a 500 Abarth”.

Timing is what Francois is about. It has helped make his career, and clearly he plans to continue the trend, plucking the right celebrities at the right time for the right brand and right campaign.

“It’s not about bigger; I’ve never been looking at bigger,” he says during a rare Australian visit. “At this moment I’m after a guy who is not a huge name, because his story fits with the story I want to tell.

It’s not about bigger, it’s about finding someone who embodies because of what he stands for, but also because of his personal story.”

I’m not sure he was referring to the pontiff with “not a huge name”; there were others on the hit list. Still, as I watched the news stations lap it up, I knew Francois’s fingerprints were all over the stretched version of Fiat’s important newcomer, Pope and all.

REWIND a couple of decades and even Francois wouldn’t have dreamt what his modern life would involve. A mad music fan, he was following his passion, hoping to make a career from being the man behind

“Detroit was a place that literally swallowed taxpayers’ money. It was seen as the origin of all evil”

French kiss

Olivier Francois was born in Paris in 1961 and is a proud Frenchman who has learnt to love Italian cars.

These days his home is Detroit, but he also spends plenty of time in Italy. Yet he never forgets his French heritage.

To some small extent Francois puts his career path down to the women in his life. “I’m not French for nothing! French are romantic people … so that’s absolutely part of it. I would say [women] shaped my career but they also brought me luck.”

Catching up with his wife is not always easy, though. He’s lucky to be home one weekend a month and sometimes has his wife accompany him on the multitude of international trips he takes each year.

the big names on stage. Except the money wasn’t there, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his first wife, ever keen for him to “find a real job”, something he did “just to make her happy”.

“My Plan A was pretend to do cars and really do something else. But it didn’t go this way.” Francois landed a job at Citroen and progressed through the ranks, eventually becoming general manager of Citroen in Italy.

Perhaps it was luck he was noticed by then emerging executive Sergio Marchionne. The man now heading Ferrari and the ambitious Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group wanted the charismatic 30-something to jump aboard with Fiat, a brand Francois describes as “beyond trouble” back in 2005.

“My right brain said, ‘I like the guy’. He had such an amazing leadership and I felt that somehow, maybe there was [hope].

I was at a moment when the whole thing was fucked up … I was divorcing, marrying another person, changing country, so I say, ‘Change for change – let’s just take a risk’.”

He describes Fiat as “kind of an adventure going to a very troubled company”, although the trouble was only going to get bigger. In his quest to soak up the inner workings of the car industry – “the one thing I love even more than cars is learning” – he asked Marchionne for the opportunity to run a brand.

“He gave me Lancia, which at the time was a big question mark,” he says, almost excited at the prospect of an opportunity some may describe as a basket-case. “Very valued brand from an Italian perspective … abroad no one cares.”

After two failed proposals, Francois finally received sign-off on a plan to establish Lancia as an Italian-only premium brand with a focus on women.

From there it was another troubled brand struggling for survival amid bankruptcy: Chrysler.

“Chrysler has always been a bit of a question mark between Dodge, which has got muscle, and our European brands.

So we came back with ‘Imported from Detroit’… the idea was to do an American mainstream brand but very much based on style and fuel efficiency and technology, recognised for the qualities that in America the imports had.”

To ram home the message, Francois convinced rapper Eminem to get on board the Detroit message – not an easy sell, to the man himself or internally. “I had a line at the front of the office of PR guys coming to beg me to let it go, to give up with the Detroit story because they say Detroit sounds like a threat… at the time Detroit was a name and a place that literally swallowed all the taxpayers’ money. It was seen as the origin of all evil.”

But Francois was convinced the campaign could work. “Eminem was relevant for a Detroit conversation in 2011 – not before, not after. He was the right guy at the right moment to do that pitch. We know now it was smart, or a lucky choice at least, because it was totally relevant; people wanted to hear a story like this. A year earlier it would probably have been not credible. Detroit was so screwed up. That’s an example of edgy that works.”

Not that all his campaigns receive a rousing reception. The J Lo campaign that saw her driving a Fiat 500 copped criticism because many thought it was unrealistic such a wealthy woman would be driving such a cheap car.

At the time he pointed out that the ad had done its job and boosted admittedly modest Fiat sales in the US. But Fiat’s American sales have since stagnated, despite the arrival of important new models such as the 500X. And 40,000 annual sales make the brand a niche in America, selling less than Porsche.

THE toughest celeb sell for Francois was Hollywood star Will Ferrell.

“He doesn’t need us,” says Francois, explaining it took a number of approaches and pitches. “But I wanted Ron Burgundy [the lead character in Anchorman]. I had to convince them that I didn’t want Will Ferrell, I wanted Ron Burgundy. He got it; he said, ‘Yeah, I get it now’. As Will Ferrell, why would I ever do a commercial? But I have Anchorman 2, I want to promote it.

“Really what I wanted was Ron Burgundy. So I officially didn’t hire Will Ferrell; I don’t know Will Ferrell, I know Ron Burgundy. And he over-delivered. He delivered 70 different commercials and scripts. I started with the three or four we had written ourselves and then he goes on and on by himself. I didn’t know which one to use; you find them on YouTube. Some are obviously not airable. It’s frustrating because clearly you have money to air three, four, five, six maybe, but we had 70!”

As well as convincing the talent to play ball, Francois also likes keeping his hands dirty. “I’m on the shoot and directing and everything. That’s my hobby,” he says, something that appears ripe for frustration from those around him who would prefer to have such intense days impeccably planned and scripted. “We improvise and we discuss the lines together. It’s always a function of who, where, when, how.”

Many of the celebs he has retained as friends. Only hours before our chat he’s been on the phone with Pitbull, and he describes P Diddy as a “very good friend”.

“One day he mentioned that he’s trying to sell and market a water brand, bottled water … that he had in partnership with Mark Wahlberg. At that moment I was about to shoot a commercial that takes place in the desert. It’s a hilarious commercial; it’s two guys lost in the desert and they see big Fiat 500Ls. And obviously it’s too big to be a Fiat so they think it’s a mirage.

“I had dinner with P Diddy and he tells me about his water and I say, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing next Saturday?’.

So we shift the shoot to LA to accommodate his schedule. He drives the car and offers water to the two guys stuck in the desert.

No endorsements, I never paid Diddy. Did he find a benefit in tying with us? Sure, we promoted his water brand, and that was the start of an enormous mutual respect.”

DEALS are part of Francois’s nature. Some are borne out of necessity, such as the one with Beats by Dre sound systems, a deal struck in the aftermath of the financial crisis that threatened to sink the company.

“My single objective was how can I do a cool sound system without investing? I couldn’t ask for money for a stupid sound system while we needed funding for new cars and new engines and new gearboxes and new everything.

“So that’s how I met with [industry mogul] Jimmy Iovine and the founder [Dr] Dre. These guys, they badly needed … a lot of awareness, they needed marketing, they needed exposure, which I could bring.

Because as broke as we were – and we were broke – we still had some marketing money to spend because it’s a necessary evil.

“The money I had was still much more

“I didn’t want Will Ferrell, I wanted Ron Burgundy”

than what they could even dream. That’s what I could bring to the table; what they could bring was the coolness of their brand. I thought that I was buying coolness, I was buying marketing, I thought I was just buying a brand. Because they wouldn’t ask for investment, they would just work on our sound system that we had in the car, which was an okay Alpine sound system.”

In the end he got more than he expected.

“I thought that they were just putting a cool brand on my existing Alpine system.

“Jimmy Iovine before he became a billionaire started as a became a billionaire started as a sound engineer. He was a sound engineer for John Lennon, and he started Bruce Springsteen and Bono and Gaga and whatever. So he took our cars, first Chryslers and now Fiat as well, and he retuned it, and the way he does it is just magical.

“I was in a car with him one day because I was unhappy with the sound. He gets in the car and connects a computer and in a few seconds that thing sounded incredible, it was louder and bass and treble and everything. He and treble and everything. He brought substance … without investing any money.”

THE Chrysler repositioning – embracing that Americanism – is symbolic of Francois’s deep understanding and appreciation of brands, and their importance in the car game.

“The most important asset we have is our brands; they stand for something.

Dodge is clear, Jeep is clear, Alfa is clear, Maserati is relatively clear. With Fiat we needed to go through this rethinking, reshaping. Chrysler is still [a work] in progress, it’s not so clear.”

Then there’s Ram, a spin-off of the Dodge Ram truck. It was a big call to create a brand while the American car industry was fighting for survival.

“At the time in 2009 when everyone was killing brands – Hummer, Mercury, Pontiac – we created Ram Trucks instead of Dodge Ram, because we thought we could not develop Dodge with a truck brand on top.

And we could never be credible and serious and tough and everything you need be to market a truck, and at the same time be as we are with Dodge, be irreverent and fun.”

He concedes some brands are easier than others.

“The easiest to work with is probably Jeep. We recently celebrated 75 years of Jeep and honestly I had more great ideas on the table than I ever will be able to use.

It’s an easy brand.

“Chrysler is not an easy brand; it’s more family and people-movers, minivans. Dodge is a muscle-car story, I think; Dodge is a performance brand. Chrysler is a little more complicated to crack.”

Of all the famous brands in the global Fiat-Chrysler stable, Francois is sentimental and lists Fiat – the brand he heads – as his favourite. Despite the challenges for the Italian giant, he believes there’s growth in it, but at the smaller end of the market.

“We make A, B and C-segment cars. We will never go beyond C. We are not going to be a mainstream brand, going to be a mainstream brand, in the same way we are not going to conquer every segment. We are a small and compact carmaker.

That’s our purpose within the FCA group. Alfa will take [over] from there.

“In the future we will evolve more towards the aspirational side of Fiat, whether it is 500 or not. There must be life after 500, we cannot repeat ourselves. And we cannot be totally functional, except in Brazil and some other parts [of the world].”

Francois also realises that in the Francois also realises that in the quest to attract eyeballs and bolster sales you can go too far, be too edgy.

“From time to time being edgy helps.

But it can be either a smart thing if at the same time you can be edgy, credible and relevant, or a stupid thing if it’s just being edgy for the sake of being edgy.

“It’s not about risk-taking. You don’t want to hurt your brand, you don’t want to damage your reputation. We are actually way more cautious than it sounds.”

“The most important asset we have is our brands … Chrysler is still a work in progress”

Career progression

1990

Started in sales and marketing at Citroen

1999

General manager of Citroen Denmark

2001

General manager of Citroen Italy

2005

Head of Fiat sales, then head of Lancia

2009

President and CEO of Chrysler brand

2011

Marketing chief of FCA and head of Fiat brand