As CMO of Fiat Chrysler and Head of the Fiat Brand, Oliver Francois created the iconic advertising slogan “Imported from Detroit” for American carmaker Chrysler. “It’s super important in marketing that you make a connection. It sounds obvious, but if I can relate to your advertising message, that’s half the battle,” he says in the latest episode of podcast “Math & Magic: Stories from the Frontiers of Marketing,” from iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman.
In this ninth weekly episode, the Paris-born Francois talks about the creation of “Born of Fire,” the TV spot that introduced the Chrysler 200 during Super Bowl XLV. At 2 minutes, it is one of the longest commercials ever shown during the event, offering a portrait of a new Detroit, with rapper Eminem—who is from Detroit—driving the car through the city, as an instrumental version of his “Lose Yourself” plays. The ad has been viewed 17 million times on social media.
“What makes a big difference in marketing is authenticity. What we always try to do is align our brand, its ethos, its personality, with someone who embodies the exact same set of values. That was very much Eminem and Chrysler in that moment,” Francois explains to Pittman.
Since, he has served as the creative force behind ads for the brands featuring Clint Eastwood, Bob Dylan—and characters Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Vin Diesel in the “Fast & Furious” franchise. “It’s about a partnership. These guys have a movie they want to promote, they’re often producers of their own movies, so obviously there’s some interest in having a media partner—so I hire the character not the actor,” Francois says, then joking, “In some cases, the campaign was better than the movie.”
In the case of the iconic Detroit ad for Chrysler, the CMO admits it almost came about by accident. “We were working on the Sebring. It was not a brand new car, we gave it a facelift. So we renamed it the Chrysler 200, almost overstating the newness of the car,” he begins. The car was then being launched at the Los Angeles Auto Show—where to his surprise, Francois realized, “The LA Auto Show is where you celebrate Japanese cars, German cars, maybe Italian cars, but for sure not a Chrysler. And this (reintroduction) was a question of life or death for the entire company.”
When he took to the stage at the auto show, Francois told the audience—and the press—“I know that you like imports. Hey look at this car, it’s imported from Detroit.” And a slogan was born. From there, the commercial was hatched, which took some convincing to include the Detroit rapper. “Eminem was never scripted to be in the commercial. He wanted to know, what are advertisers going to do with my song? It was more about Detroit than a car. So he came on the set and magic happened.” As a result of the Super Bowl campaign, “we went from selling 600 cars to 6,000. The commercial resonated with more than Detroit, with more than car guys, it was a message of pride for all of America,” Francois says. “There was a spirit and a mindset in that commercial and the images were very cool, too. And it remarketed Detroit, making it cool and vibrant again.”
The exec also discussed his background with Pittman in the podcast. “I grew up in a super intellectual family, I’m the one that failed. I didn’t follow my DNA. I used to write poetry as a kid,” he says. After school, he worked in IT and then, wanting something more creative, founded a record label in France. “My biggest ambition was to either write poetry or produce music. I went to conservatory, but I’m not a great musician. So I started the label in Paris.” Meanwhile, he got married and had three children: “She wanted a guy with a real job.”
That led to a marketing job with automaker Citroën, leaving Paris for Denmark and then Italy. And then Francois was drafted by Sergio Marchionne, the executive widely credited for the turnaround of both Fiat and Chrysler. “Sergio became quickly aware that the biggest strength for a carmaker is their brands. There are no cars, this is a house of brands… Jeep and RAM trucks… in order to give Dodge its own brand.”
“Everything you do, you need to be brand-centric, without even seeing a car,” Francois stresses. “Second, be bold and always unexpected. Always unpredictable. And last, be relevant. Build your brand before you build your products. Brand should be a statement, a purpose and a promise.”