Once Again, the Cars Are The Stars in Chrysler Ads

Burned by a diva, Chrysler is all about the iron in its 2004 marketing. The automaker’s new campaign for the remodeled Town & Country minivan with stow-and-go seating, breaking this week, will not feature Céline Dion, whose ballyhooed image ads last year were roundly criticized for hyping her but selling little.

Chrysler Group, which spent nearly $1.2 billion on U.S. advertising for its Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler brands in 2003, declined to discuss details of the new work, done by Omnicom Group’s BBDO in Detroit.

George Murphy, Chrysler svp of global brand marketing, said it is “a different approach for us. Now that we have more new products to talk about, this is our chance to get the consumers’ mind back and wean them off of ‘deal, deal, deal.’ So that will be the thrust of our advertising—to focus on the vehicle, and not the price.”

Sources said advertising for the Town & Country—as well as new work for the new PT Cruiser convertible, 300C sedan and Crossfire, launching March 15, April 1 and May 1, respectively—features plenty of action shots (one source described them as “heroic”). It also has none of the black-and-white, highly stylized approach that characterized last year’s spots, tagged “Drive & love.” In all, nine new or redesigned Chrysler models will debut this year, each with its own ad campaign. Murphy said Chrysler is increasing its overall ad budget by a percentage in the high single digits in 2004.

Dealers, who revolted against the estimated $14 million Dion deal when the ads failed to help the launch of the Pacifica hybrid SUV, are only too happy to see product front and center again in the marketing strategy.

One dealer who has seen the new spots for the 300C—a critical entry in the big-sedan category and the “flagship” of Chrysler’s 2004 launch schedule, according to Murphy—described the work as “very product-focused, shots of 300C cruising down a highway. It’s a big improvement over the Céline Dion shit.”

“It’s all about the product. It’s much more clean and focused,” added Tom Barenboim of Clark Chrysler Jeep in Methuen, Mass., and a member of the Chrysler dealer ad council. “The ads focus on shape, design. [The campaign] talks about what the marriage with Mercedes is all about, the engineering feats, the Hemi.”

The new campaign “really needs to put the stake in the ground and get the consumers to understand what Chrysler is,” said Bill Morden, BBDO vice chairman and executive creative director. “We want to use the product to define the brand, instead of trying to force-feed them an image they can then either accept or reject.”

Dion’s relationship with the company will continue, however. She recently filmed PSAs focusing on auto safety that launch in late March, though those spots do not mention Chrysler. The Chrysler Group reported a 2003 operating loss of $637 million (including restructuring expenditures of $591 million related to the 2001 turnaround plan), compared with a 2002 operating profit of $0.8 million. Adjusted for the restructuring costs, Chrysler Group reported a loss of $47 million in 2003.

Chrysler’s vehicle sales slumped worldwide, from 2.82 million cars, minivans, SUVs and light trucks in 2002 to 2.64 million in 2003.

The U.S. car makers—Ford, General Motors and Chrysler’s domestic brands—saw their combined share of the U.S. market fall to 60.2 percent in 2003, per Autodata, their lowest combined share ever.