Chrysler hears From Ad Agencies About Brand Woes

Chrysler this week will hear presentations from several ad agencies pitching its Chrysler, Dodge and Ram Truck accounts.

The task given to the agencies was the following: Give the company a plan and creative ideas for the fourth quarter with an eye toward re-positioning the brands long term. The agencies that win will literally be in commercial production this coming weekend.

For Chrysler brand, the agencies were told to concentrate on the Town & Country minivan and 300 sedan. For Dodge, they were told to hone in on Charger and Journey. No mention of Dodge Caliber or Challenger in the brief.

The dictum for Dodge was to position the brand around an idea of “Modern American Performance.”

For Chrysler, it was trickier. There was a thought and direction conveyed to agencies to position the car upscale. But the problem is that Chrysler isn’t really getting any meaningful new product for a few years. The five year old 300 is, at best, a “value” proposition when compared with cars more expensive. With rebates, for example, one could drive away a 300 Touring for around $26,000, a few thousand less than the new Ford Taurus, and, arguably, even more below other cars one could conceivably compare the 300 with: Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon.

But I find comments reported in Automotive News and attributed to Peter Fong, Chrysler CEO and head of sales for all the brands, a bit…well…interesting.

“Fong envisions the Chrysler brand as ‘a notch above Lincoln, a notch above Cadillac.” This suggests a substantial change, because Chrysler vehicles generally sell for many thousands of dollars less than Cadillacs.”

” ‘The [Chrysler] Sebring and the [Dodge] Avenger attract different customers, but their prices are too close to each other,’ Fong said.”

“Chrysler executives vow to separate Chrysler and Dodge.”

Trying to position Chrysler above Caddy seems like a reach. We have seen this movie before. The Chrysler Crossfire? The original Chrysler 300C managed to achieve transaction prices well above $30K with a Hemi. But its age has caught up with it. A loaded Town & Country, too, managed prices well North of $30K in the good old days.

But here is the problem. Fong’s comments indicate an intention to take Chrysler where it has never really been in the lifetime of today’s buyers. And don’t talk to me about the 1930s and 40s. At least Cadillac, still amidst its recovery and makeover, was, in my lifetime, a benchmark; as in “That stereo is the Cadillac of stereos.”

Chrysler’s makeover under CEO Sergio Marchionne is starting to look a little like a paper tiger. The company seems to be charting the course of its brands on a clean sheet of paper, with the intention of taking them where they would like to see them go; where it seems logical.

The company doesn’t want to wind up with Chevy and Buick when it repositions Dodge and Chrysler. It wants to have a Chevy/Cadillac or Toyota/Lexus kind of offering.

Good luck with that in terms of selling Chrysler as a Caddy, Lincoln or Lexus alternative. Brand futures are not earned on paper. They are earned with a smart, sound product plan plus clever engaging marketing. But this idea that you can market your way passed a brand’s history and past is folly. Chrysler brand is still K-car for many buyers. And it will take a long time to put PT Cruiser and Sebring behind us before we start thinking of Chrysler as an alternative to a Caddy CTS or even Lincoln MKS.

Chrysler, the company may find out after they have spent a bunch of money on this plan, doesn’t so much equal Cadillac, but Oldsmobile.

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