The CMO Q&A: Fiat Chrysler’s Olivier Francois On His Music-Driven COVID-19 Campaign
Automotive is one of the many categories hit especially hard by the COVID-19 crisis, with J.D. Power & Associates projecting an 80% drop in year-over-year car sales for the month of April as lockdowns and shelter-in-place ordinances force many dealers to keep their doors closed.
So sending messages of hope and solidarity during such unprecedented times created a unique challenge for Olivier Francois, Chief Marketing Officer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. As the longtime CMO for a brand portfolio led by Chrysler, Jeep, Fiat, Ram Trucks and Alfa Romeo, Francois has built his decorated career around high-impact brand campaigns that have created some of the most talked-about – and awarded – moments of the Super Bowl, Oscars and other highly-rated events. But as Francois tells Brand Innovators, the current times call for a scaling-back of commercial messaging to put customers and community first.
“We knew this was something we needed to do, it’s for sure one of our defining moments of branding,” Francois says of Drive Forward, a new initiative that FCA kicked off across its five flagship brands on April 1. “As a global group, we are in constant contact with other parts of the world, and as China and Italy start to come out of it and with the U.S. still in the early stages of a pandemic, we wanted to send a message of hope and optimism.”
Drive Forward is supported by :30 commercials running on broadcast and cable and :15 spots on social, each promoting FCA’s special incentives for customers to help navigate the coronavirus crisis, including 84 months of zero-percent financing and 90 days of no payments on select FCA 2019 and 2020 models. The spots are committed to air through the end of April, with the media mix shifting in real-time as FCA responds to the ever-changing landscape of closures and lockdowns. Check out the :30 Drive Forward commercial HERE.
Though the campaign is heavy on retail language, Francois wanted to add a secret ingredient with its use of music — something that could convey an emotional, positive tone and also harken back to FCA’s pioneering use of original songs and artist-driven narratives in its previous advertising with artists like Eminem, Alice Cooper and Chris Stapleton.
The solution came when longtime Jeep collaborator Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic shared a rough demo of his band’s newly released song “Better Days,” directly inspired by the coronavirus quarantine. Francois licensed the song within 24 hours of its final mastering and commercial release on March 25, with a portion of OneRepublic’s proceeds already earmarked to benefit the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. “The band’s hope is that our new song ‘Better Days’ will bring comfort as we all stay home to combat the COVID-19 outbreak,” Tedder says in a statement.
Drive Forward is the latest of several company-wide initiatives to provide direct relief in the coming months. This includes using FCA facilities to produce more than 1 million face masks for first responders and health care workers, providing more than 1 million meals to food-insecure schoolchildren in the communities around FCA’s core plants in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio; and expanding its longtime support of No Kid Hungry to provide an additional 10 million meals.
Brand Innovators caught up with Francois from Miami, where he had just recently emerged from weeks of self-quarantine after traveling to his home country of Italy for work on FCA’s Italian-themed spot, “An Anthem to the Streets,” featuring the Italian national anthem as its score. Francois spoke openly about the challenges of marketing through a global crisis, the sustained power of marketing with music and a glimpse at what car ownership and transportation might look like once a new normal starts to emerge.
Brand Innovators: How did you arrive at the concept and overall messaging tone for FCA’s Drive Forward initiative?
Olivier Francois: So often we speak of some defining moments in our brand communication. And it’s interesting because this is something that is quite the opposite of branded communication. First, it’s across four brands, which we don’t do often, and two it’s pretty tactical. By definition, this is quite the opposite of, say, a Super Bowl commercial. But it’s an important message and it starts with the relatively unemotional message to our current customers that in these tough times we are all in this together and we have created a commercial package to alleviate the effects of COVID-19. We speak about financing, we provide an 800 number. From that, you do not expect something to be especially emotional.
So I had the piece on my computer and on my phone, and I was watching it a bit skeptical saying, “I know we have to do it, but it doesn’t really speak to me.” But in this mass of very dry information, there was this idea of “better days are ahead” and I said, “Yeah, that’s kinda nice.” It’s the emotional moment of a pretty unemotional script. And we had this music on it that was I guess you would call muzak, it didn’t really work. Now normally, I would opt for four different commercials with different imagery and maybe even different music. But we can’t invest too much money on these pieces, we have to be obviously very careful and very accountable with production costs.
How did those considerations parallel path to your conversations with Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic?
I had been talking with Ryan Tedder in the last two to three days before that about my ambition to create something about the necessity to stay home together and create solidarity in this. I had just traveled back from Italy and did my quarantine in Italy and another quarantine here, so I am very passionate about this. We need to find a way for people to stay home. So why don’t we create a song about that?
And Ryan said, “I may have that very anthemic song” and he sent me the song three times. The first time was a really rough demo, then the next morning it was a little less rough. By the time we were at Sunday morning, March 22nd, he sent me the almost produced song and said, “What do you think?”
And it was funny because I was playing it for my wife, who’s an Italian singer, and she said, “Why did Ryan send you this song?” And an hour later, I’m watching the last finished version of the commercial with the original music in place and I said, “Now I think I know why I got this song.” So I sent the music back to the agency and my team and said, “Let’s just use this.” And that’s how it all comes full circle. What was this very tactical, informational kind of dry commercial now connects on an emotional level because of the song. So that’s the power of good music in advertising.
One of the many strange side effects of this quarantine period is that TV viewing is way up, but ad budgets are obviously contracting as many businesses – including lots of your car dealers – remain closed. How are you rethinking your media mix in real time?
That’s why this campaign was so interesting, because this is probably the last TV commercial we are going to do for awhile. I think we will hopefully be back in business and hopefully soon with amazing pieces on TV, but between now and then we are pulling out and most of what we are going to do and will be on social media and digital. Social is an extraordinary gym to flex your creative muscle. And we have a lot of amazing stuff in the works.
Lots of new behaviors are going to emerge once the nation is no longer under quarantine. How do you foresee the automotive industry adapting to some of these changes?
I think there will be a sense of protection when it comes to the relationship with cars. And clearly your car is a protective bubble to that. So what is going to happen with car-sharing and public transportation? Probably there will be some kind of pause. Maybe a little less speaking for the US but for the rest of the world, there was a very unstoppable shift from owning a car to always public transportation, car sharing, the shared economy. It will be very fascinating to see what the future after COVID-19 looks like.
From a marketing standpoint, I’m an observer of what’s going on everywhere in the world and especially looking at China and some European countries as being a little bit of an indication of our future and how the future will be. Maybe more solidarity. Italy, as an example, people are very individualistic, and they are discovering that there are some battles that you cannot fight alone. And also doing things together. Mentalities are changing, clearly purchase behaviors are going to change, and so we need to understand perfectly what’s going to go right away, and what is going to be more long-term and react accordingly.
What advice would you give other CMOs and marketers on how to market during these unprecedented circumstances?
This is the most imperfect time for a marketer because there’s no client to buy, but it’s also the perfect time to build and rebuild your brand to fiercely connect more deeply with your customer. Which you can do more than ever because you do not have the same commercial pressure, and you don’t have to fit into a certain TV commercial format. Social media is becoming the perfect ground to see your branding and make your brand grow in terms of relevance and the connection with the customer. Your customer is going to remember how you supported them during this time.
And I think we should not forget about the importance of a good smile or a good laugh. We tend to be very dramatic and serious, which is correct and most of what we’ll do obviously will be very loaded with emotions, but there are other angles we’re exploring because people need comedic relief. So, you are going to see some things coming from us that reflect that.
Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.