LOS ANGELES –chief designer Ralph Gilles doesn’t hesitate to engage with his Twitter followers, but he admits it sometimes can be a lot to handle.
“Once in a while it’s overwhelming because it’s a lot more information people want than I can provide them,” Gilles tells WardsAuto at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Gilles, also president of’s high-performance SRT brand, averages 12 tweets a day; by comparison, the auto maker’s primary Twitter account averages six daily. Most of Gilles’ tweets are replies to curious SRT enthusiasts asking about potential new products, insider information about the world of automotive design and snapshots of his favorite cars.
And then there was the time he tweeted Donald Trump.
Just before the U.S. presidential election in November, Gilles was in Las Vegas leaving the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. show when he saw a tweet from the business mogul to thousands of followers that Chrysler was moving Jeep from the U.S. to China, despite having accepted loans from the U.S. government in 2009.
Chrysler replied to the allegation, also made by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, by denying it was moving Jeep production to China, but instead was exploring expansion options in the country.
Gilles responded more bluntly, tweeting to Trump, “You are full of s**t!”
Immediately thrust into the middle of the acrimonious election, Gilles’s five-word response spread twice as fast online as the erroneous claim that Chrysler was transplanting Jeep operations to China. The next day, he was shocked that his tweet landed on front pages nationwide and was fodder for morning news shows.
“I actually follow Donald because he’s humorous to me. He’s all over the place with his commentary. And then I saw that and I was like, ‘How dare he propagate this.’ And I just reacted to it, shut my phone off and four hours later I land in Detroit, open my phone up, and I’m like ‘What did I do?’” Gilles laughs.
Most of the coverage was favorable toward Chrysler, and Gilles became a recognizable name to those unfamiliar with the auto industry. “Everyone descended on (Trump) for me, literally thousands of people,” he says. “In the space of two days, my Twitter followers went up by 5,200 people” and numbered more than 9,600 as of late last week.
“Part of it was a political thing, which really wasn’t my intent, but it was more about protecting Toledo (Ohio, where Jeep operations are concentrated). There were a lot of people panicking – ‘Is this true? Are we moving manufacturing?’” Gilles says.
It was very disappointing that misinformation (was) going on, and that’s what I was reacting to. The fear-mongering was just incredible.”
Gilles is the only top-ranking Chrysler executive who tweets regularly from a personal account, but his point-blank style is clear offline, as well. At events where his contemporaries are in suits and ties, Gilles often is found in military-inspired shirts and jeans. You’ll hear an occasional expletive in conversation.
“I don’t pull punches in anything I do. What makes me a good designer is (that) I can call a spade a spade. When I see something I don’t like, I don’t bluff around. I tell my designers, ‘This sucks.’ And that’s the way I’ve always been in life,” he says.
“I’m like that with my family. I don’t flower it and lie to people. I say this is wrong, let’s fix it. It’s an integrity thing.”
With the Trump incident behind him, Gilles continues to juggle double duty as the auto maker’s design chief and the face of SRT. The next-generation Chrysler minivan is in the works and is a priority for the design team, but Gilles doesn’t say whether it will be badged as a Chrysler, Dodge or both.
The current minivan provides a solid foundation for the next iteration, Gilles says. “It’s purpose-built. It’s not a car-based-something masquerading as a minivan. It’s truly engineered and designed to do what it does.”
Gilles was charged with leading the refreshes of each vehicle in the Chrysler lineup after the auto maker emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. A primary goal was to establish a clear design language for each brand, reflecting Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s philosophy of distinct branding for distinct consumers.
“We have a ways to go. I’m excited it’s starting to happen,” Gilles says. “I think you’re starting to see very distinctive looks, especially the Jeep brand; it really differentiates itself. It’s always been that way. Chrysler and Dodge are clearly separating now; no more badge-engineered cars in the portfolio at all.
“The difference between Chrysler and everybody else is that we have so many brands. For us designer types, it’s heaven to be able to exercise different aesthetics relative to each brand so you don’t have to force an aesthetic across an entire vehicle portfolio.”
The auto maker also is stepping up support for SRT. In October, more than 400 dealers in the Chrysler network became SRT-certified, meaning they employ both sales staff trained in speaking the language of enthusiast drivers and technicians able to repair the high-performance vehicles.
About 1,200 employees across the network are SRT-certified, Gilles says. They also were trained in high-speed driving on tracks, a first for Chrysler, and in understanding the engineering under the hood.
Next comes more visibility for SRT, whose marketing until now has rested on word-of-mouth recommendation. Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois has been tasked with raising the brand’s profile.
“Olivier’s supposedly cooking up something for me,” Gilles says. “We’re excited to have some spots that will play specifically during motorsports (telecasts). We’ll be running a full season of (American Le Mans Series racing) next year, and we’ll be running a spot during that.
“But you’ll never see a (full-blown) campaign on TV. We don’t need to, because we’re not chasing volume.”
Managing his Twitter account has become something of a third job for Gilles, but no one else is going to do it for him.
“My own staff asked, ‘You want someone to handle your Twitter feed for you?’ Bulls**t, if I’m going to be on Twitter, I’m going to do it,” he says. “I’m not going to hire a fake Twitter person to tweet for me, because that wouldn’t be authentic.”