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Chrysler's Vines Departs. Does CEO Nardelli KNow What Drives Auto Marketing.

Most consumers and customers of Chrysler don’t know who Jason Vines is. So, perhaps Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli views Vines resignation as no big deal.

Vines has been the vp in charge of communications at Chrysler for a few years. He has also held the similar post at Ford and Nissan. He has his detractors, as he can often be combative with reporters. And God knows he has had his misfires. The Dr. Z campaign for Chrysler starring an animated version of Dieter Zetsche comes to mind.

But he is also, pound for pound, one of the best guys in the business for generating energy around a car brand. The word on the street is that his bold and sometimes audacious style clashed with Bob Nardelli’s vision of the new Chrysler—a private company majority-owned by private equity firm Cerberus.

Nardelli has had a prickly relationship with the media going back to his days as CEO of Home Depot and as a high-ranking exec at GE. I can’t say he is “thin-skinned,” because I never covered him day to day on a beat before. But if he is turning out to be that way, and expects to be able to run a stealth comeback for Chrysler, he has some learning to do.

GE and Home Depot’s value is not dependent on the media covering those companies. Chrysler’s is.

A recovery at Chrysler is going to take time. The brands are damaged goods. Even Jeep has fallen in value. Chrysler and Dodge hardly draw flies. A bunch of the new product is sub-prime: The Nitro, the Sebring, The Compass, the Avenger. I’ve seen some research numbers on these products, in terms of what buyers and rejectors think of them, that would make a marketer weep.

What Nardelli will find is that he needs a dynamic PR effort to buy himself time and create diversions whilst the product lineup gets fixed.

Chrysler vice chairman Jim Press knows all this, by the way, which begs the question: how long will the Nardelli-Press marriage last?

Former General Motors North America president Ron Zarella only ever said one smart thing during the years he was at the automaker. And it was this: Zarella's last day, he said (and I'm paraphrasing), "I didn't realize until very late in the game that what you guys (the media) say about GM and its products is a lot more important than what we advertise. Where I came from (Procter & Gamble and Bausch & Lomb), it was the opposite. Advertising was the whole show, and very little depended on PR and media relations."

In the car business, this is absolutely true. GM this week is having kittens over a somewhat negative review of the Chevy Malibu in USA Today. That's because they know that James Healey's review probably carries more weight than $10 million of TV ads.

The interesting thing to watch is how Nardelli, who may fight this reality, will match up with Press over time. Press has been doing interviews with the media, while Nardelli really hasn't. Press knows how to tell a story. He did it for years at Toyota. Sooner or later, there is bound to be some resentment or jealousy in the House of Cerberus/Chrysler. I have seen this movie before.

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