CMO Q&A: Olivier Francois, Chrysler

Chrysler CMO Olivier Francois talks to Lindsay Stein about leveraging social media as a brand-building tool and future plans for the automaker.

How are you going to continue to build buzz for Chrysler and its brands in 2013?
One of the main priorities of the company is to keep building our brands and give them a very clear persona.

Each brand shoots for something unique. All of them are distributed within the same dealer showrooms, so I want the consumers who visit them to have a very clear idea of which brand and product they are looking for. The idea is to limit cross shopping within our brand portfolio, but to go against the competition.

What is very important when building brands is consistency. PR, marketing, and social media are no different - they are all assets of the same mission, and I would even include catalogs, websites, and the auto shows - everything has to speak with one voice. PR and marketing have to work very closely across the group and they do. It is all integrated as it's always about one thing - communications. How do we look from the outside? It's one tone of voice.

Fiat's seduction effort became its Super Bowl commercial due to online feedback.

Has the value of PR gone up at Chrysler?
What is fundamental is that marketing by nature is about promise, dreams, and intangibility. PR is what breaks the credibility quotient because what makes us credible are journalists and the third party, so it's about how we can engage consumers in terms of marketing, and at the same time how we are going to have those promises endorsed by professionals and journalists.

A solid PR team needs to work in perfect harmony and integration with marketing. There is an American expression, "There is no 'I' in team," so we created a tagline, "There is an 'us' in genius." Genius is about us. It needs to be about the people.

The perception of Chrysler has changed. People are not just buying into products anymore. They are buying into brands, and a brand is an example of values. We all can make good products, but what makes the difference is when those products come from a company that stands for something.

It's about impactful messages, ones that are cause-related and engage conversation. So it goes a little bit beyond just the list of features and benefits, and it is obvious that PR has to be engaged. It's not a result you can get with just marketing or advertising.

Is social media just as valued?
The solution for brand building is to rally the troops and increase awareness in the marketplace and social media is a critical part of that. Social media allows us to go deeper into the marketplace to find current and potential customers and engage in dialogue. In our case, we like to speak not just about cars and products, but also about something a little deeper, and that is exactly where social media can help us.

What I like about social media is that it is social, not media. Social means to get together around something or around shared values. It's also the right place to experiment and test the waters for a risky idea before going deep. We like taking risks and that's also my personal characteristic.

Plus, I am not an American, so I do not always have a sense of whether I am going too far or not, so social media is wonderful.

Chrysler' Jeep Grand Cherokee is a car that bests German engineering, says Francois.

Take Fiat - one of the most important campaigns at the beginning of last year was the so-called seduction commercials. At the end of 2011, we introduced a sexy commercial first as a viral video on YouTube, and then we had a sense that it was more than well accepted. It was to position Fiat as very seductive, very Italian and sensual, a little irreverent, and smart at the same time.

It ended up being a Super Bowl commercial for 2012. In January of this year, we were running a commercial on the Fiat webpage, so fans could choose which spot we should air next on the big screen.

What is in your driveway?
In Italy, I drive a Lancia Thema, which is seen as the flagship of the group, and there is a lot of pride in the brand. It's an American soul in an Italian suit.

In America, I like to be a little Italian and I love driving my little Fiat, especially if I want to be noticed because clearly the Fiat is head-turning. People look at you and ask a lot of questions and engage with you.

My Fiat shares a parking spot with my Jeep SRT Grand Cherokee, which is one of the most amazing cars for the group because it's proof that Chrysler can top German carmakers. It's very fast and at the same time extremely capable as a Jeep with a world- class level of craftsmanship.

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