DETROIT – Don’t expect to see Sergio Marchionne touting the Italian underpinnings ofproducts as “Dr. M.”
The scholarly but down-to-earth executive impresses in his auto show debut here as CEO ofGroup LLC. However, Marchionne promises to let Chrysler products speak for themselves.
As part of the auto maker’s emergence from bankruptcy last summer, it will inherit powertrain technology and small-car platforms from Italy’sAuto SpA, which also is led by Marchionne.
But unlike Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler’s former partner under the defunct DaimlerChrysler AG, the pentastar company will not attempt to leverage the cachet of these European underpinnings.
“These are American brands,” Marchionne says, referring to Jeep, Dodge, the newly minted Ram line and the auto maker’s core marque, Chrysler. “I’m helping them technically. I’m giving them some engines. I’m giving them some architectures.”
Former Chrysler boss Dieter Zetsche, who now leads Mercedes and its parent,AG, gained notoriety from television spots depicting him as “Dr. Z.” In those commercials, Zetsche revealed how Chrysler products benefited from components engineered by Mercedes in Germany.
“If you told me there were some German engineering in American vehicles, I couldn’t care less,” Marchionne says, adding consumer demands are simple.
“(A customer) wants a reliable, high-quality car that he likes,” Marchionne tells journalists here at the North American International Auto Show. “And he needs to connect to the brand.”
And Chrysler envisions a “clear distinction” between each brand, he says.
“They have different brand aspirations. The target customers are different. We need to continue to drive that demarcation in everything that we do, from design to a marketing message.”
Olivier Francois, the auto maker’s new marketing chief, is drawing the lines between each brand. Freedom will underscore Jeep’s message, Francois says, while Ram will focus on capability.
Humor, fun and performance will be the hallmarks of Dodge.
“When you look into Chrysler’s DNA,” he tells Ward’s, “they care about style, fashion. They like cinema.”
The auto maker hopes to reinforce that image Sunday when six customized Chrysler 300 sedans roll up to the red carpet at the Golden Globe awards. Each car will reflect the personality of a star and will be auctioned later to benefit the star’s favorite charity.
Francois is mum when asked to identify the celebrities.
But while Chrysler has no plans to leverage the cachet of’s brands, their association portends budget savings on the marketing front.
The marketing message of Fiat’s Lancia brand parallels that of Chrysler. And Francois is Lancia’s CEO.
Recently, Lancia shot a series of European television commercials in Las Vegas and a nearby desert. At the last minute, Francois decided to shoot the ads again featuring Chrysler products – a move that spared the expense of bringing a second crew on location.
He will determine in the next several weeks how the Chrysler scenes will be used.
Chrysler’s stand at the Detroit show features a Lancia Delta customized with a new grille and badges to look like a Chrysler. But executives downplay its significance.
As the auto maker wrestles with the integration of its native platforms with Fiat technology, the Lancia-bred “design study” – as insiders call it – is the only vehicle on the Chrysler stand that will not be offered for sale this year.
None of the Fiat-infused Chryslers, due in 2012, are represented – not even by concept vehicles.
Says Marchionne: “I haven’t shown you one single car that I intend to launch – not one. There’s no use showing you something that we won’t have.”
Meanwhile, Chrysler executives are confident they can clarify the distinction between Ram as a truck marque and Dodge as a brand for passenger vehicles ranging from small cars to minivans.
“What was Dodge becoming?” asks Ram President and CEO Fred Diaz. “When you said ‘Dodge,’ the first thing conjured up in people’s minds was ‘truck.’ That wasn’t good for the Dodge car (lineup); it wasn’t good for the Caravan (minivan). We needed to give Dodge its own personality.”
Diaz says the vehicle-identification numbers on Ram products will continue to indicate Dodge, but Francois tells Ward’s the Dodge name eventually will disappear from the Ram line.
Francois also concedes old habits die hard. And if a customer asks to see a “Dodge Ram” pickup, he or she will receive the proper attention, as all four Chrysler brands will share showroom space.
Marchionne promises the auto maker’s American sensibility will not be compromised by its connection with Fiat. He singles outof America Inc.’s adoption of the tagline “Das Auto” as an example of something Chrysler will not tolerate.
The campaign’s use of German in the American market demonstrates the “cultural sensitivity of a snail,” Marchionne says. “You just can’t come here and do that nonsense.”
VW is planning a rejuvenated advertising push. Says a press release from the auto maker’s ad agency, Deutsch L.A.: “Leveraging the tagline, ‘Das Auto,’ the campaign will promote the innovative features and benefits of modern-dayproducts. The spots will define how Volkswagen is delivering German Engineering at a great value in the often playful yet direct Volkswagen tone.”
Marchionne’s plain-speaking manner endears him to the media covering the Detroit show. And while he technically qualifies for the title – he has an honorary doctorate from a Canadian university – don’t expect to see him as television pitchman “Dr. M.”
“Are you joking? Never,” an insider tells Ward’s in an apparent reference to Marchionne’s humble wardrobe.
He is rarely seen in anything other than a plain black sweater.