Automobile advertising has historically constituted not only one of the most visible but also, in sheer dollar volume, one of the largest aspects of the marketing industry. Thus in the 1990s Chrysler, which in 1998 merged with German automaker Daimler-Benz to create DaimlerChrysler AG, had an advertising budget of $1 billion. This certainly dwarfed the budgets of most companies, but even the amount it dedicated to its Chrysler line in 1998—as opposed to other lines such as Plymouth or Jeep—was impressive at an estimated $200 million. Michigan agency Bozell, Southfield handled the entire account, which included television, radio, and print advertising, with an emphasis on television. The company’s overall theme was ‘‘Great cars. Great trucks.’’ As for the Chrysler brand itself, it replaced its 1997 campaign, ‘‘What’s in Your World?,’’ with the tag line ‘‘Engineered to be great cars.’’ Chrysler’s 1998 advertising promoted models such as the Concorde and the LHS, the latter introduced in 1994. But the biggest news was the 300M, a semiluxury model whose design suggested earlier styles. And well it might, for the M in its name signified a return to the popular 300 ‘‘letter series’’ of the 1950s and 1960s. During that time Chrysler had produced a new model each year, identified by successive letters of the alphabet. The launch of the 300M also marked the return of a distinctive winged logo that Chrysler had not used for more than 60 years.
Advertising for the 300M and other lines emphasized luxury in an attempt to overcome negative images associated with the company’s recent past. In the 1970s Chrysler had nearly gone bankrupt, and even under the leadership of the charismatic Lee Iacocca in the 1980s, it had been unable to shake the perception of its product as drab and utilitarian. Perhaps it was ironic then that Chrysler’s 1998 advertising also stressed the theme of heritage. But in this case ‘‘heritage’’ suggested something much larger than the company’s actual history; rather, the theme carried with it images of a luxurious past—and a prosperous future.
In 1920 the Maxwell Motor Car Company hired former General Motors (GM) vice president Walter Chrysler to turn around its failing enterprise. Chrysler became president of the revitalized company in 1923 and in the following year introduced the Chrysler model with a distinctive winged symbol as its trademark. A year later, in 1925, the company was renamed Chrysler, and in 1928 it purchased Dodge, a company that produced the Plymouth and DeSoto lines.
After a strong start, however, by mid century Chrysler began to slip. At a time when rivals GM and Ford, responding to postwar prosperity, regularly introduced new models, innovation at Chrysler came to a standstill. The company even dropped the winged symbol in the mid-1930s, adding to the impression of Chryslers as unexciting cars. Then, in the mid-1950s, the automaker showed that it still retained Walter Chrysler’s ability—Chrysler himself had retired in 1935—to revive his company’s fortunes. ‘‘In 1955,’’ wrote Jennifer Lach in American Demographics in 1998, ‘‘Chrysler needed a new icon. It had no [Chevrolet] Corvette, no [Ford] Thunderbird for young crew-cuts in blue jeans to drool over. That was the year the company found its muscle car: the C-300.’’ Promoted as ‘‘America’s most powerful car,’’ the C-300 proved enormously popular, and during the next decade Chrysler introduced a new model every year, each with a letter attached to the end of the name. With the 300Lin 1965, however, the so-called letter series ended. Chrysler itself fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. First it introduced smaller models before the public was ready for them, and then it returned to larger vehicles just in time for the oil crisis of the 1970s. The company persisted in producing gas-guzzlers throughout the decade, and soon Chrysler was in so much trouble that it applied for and received $1.5 billion worth of loan guarantees from the federal government. Iacocca, former Ford president, became head of Chrysler in 1978, launching yet another turnaround. During the 1980s the company paid off its government loans, beat its competitors by introducing the first minivan, and introduced a series of sturdy if unexciting vehicles called ‘‘K cars.’’ Iacocca left the company in 1992, and in 1998 it was acquired by Daimler-Benz, a vast European auto manufacturer whose best-known product was the upscale Mercedes-Benz.
With the Chrysler 300M sedan, launched in 1998, the company made a push for mature, prosperous buyers with a penchant for luxury. The target for the 300M model, according to Jean Halliday in Advertising Age, was people 35 years of age and older, with buyers expected to be about 40 percent female. For its LHS sedan, another luxury model first introduced in 1994, the company expected buyers to be 45 years old and older, with about 30 percent female. Its appeal was to what Lach in American Demographics called the ‘‘near-luxury’’ segment. Hence the emphasis on heritage, certainly not a theme a company would apply in marketing to very young consumers, along with a program of marketing in a number of venues, many of them decidedly upscale. The first print ads for the 1998 line appeared in October 1997 in Coastal Living, Food and Wine, Vogue, GQ, Martha Stewart’s Living, and a number of other publications, including the more broadly based Business Week and Sports Illustrated.
Television advertising ran the gamut, though again the thrust was toward more seasoned viewers. Hence the company placed spots on ABC’s Nightline and NBC’s Tonight Show, as well as on ABC and CBS telecasts of college football. Other television advertising in the 1998 campaign also placed an emphasis on mature viewers. Thus in January the company ran its ‘‘Wings’’ spot on the telecast of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament, the Golden Globes film awards, and the popular show ER. Meanwhile, Chrysler eyed the demographics of the future. Chrysler executive Steven Bruyn told Lach that the company already had its eye on the 2003 market, when it predicted that what were called ‘‘personal luxury cars’’—that is, two-seater sports cars—would be all the rage. ‘‘Once the kids are gone’’ to college, an industry analyst suggested, ‘‘[baby] boomers are going to trade in their SUVs [sport utility vehicles] and indulge in a twoseater.’’
On the one hand, Chrysler faced its traditional foes in the U.S. auto industry: Ford, whose Lincoln Continental line competed with Chrysler’s luxury models, and GM, with its Buick Park Avenue and other models. On the other hand, there were the many upscale imports such as the Lexus and the BMW. But the theme that appeared again and again, as the advertising and automotive industries examined the ‘‘new’’ Chrysler—both the car and the company—was that of the company’s own conflicts over image.
Indeed, image problems perhaps posed the greatest competition to Chrysler. ‘‘To some,’’ wrote Robyn Meredith in the Houston Chronicle in January 1998, ‘‘the Chrysler name conjures the image not of a car but rather of a company that taxpayers bailed out of nearbankruptcy almost two decades ago.’’ Tanya Gazdik and Teresa Buyikian noted in Adweek at the same time that ‘‘Chrysler is hoping to change customers’ perception of its brand with a new spot breaking on Jan. 11.’’ Chrysler/ Plymouth/Jeep division general manager Marty Levine admitted that ‘‘consumers still see the ‘K cars’ of the 1980s when they think of the brand.’’
With its new campaign, David Kiley wrote in Brandweek, Chrysler hoped to ‘‘boost sales of Chrysler brand, which has underperformed expectations, and close the gap between what the company feels is the reality of Chrysler brand cars and the lingering perception of dullness left over from the brand’s dowdy days in the 1970s and ‘80s.’’ It faced what Meredith in the Houston Chronicle called ‘‘an identify crisis, the root of which is the name the brand shares with its corporate parent.’’
With its 1998 campaign, which first appeared in September 1997, Chrysler and Bozell sought to firmly imprint the company’s brand image in consumers’ minds with an emphasis on heritage and luxury. Its overall corporate theme remained the same: ‘‘Great cars. Great trucks.’’ But in place of Bozell’s earlier tag line, ‘‘What’s in your world?,’’ the new campaign was built around the phrase ‘‘Engineered to be great cars.’’ Advertising included television, radio, and print, but as was often the case with automobile advertising, TV led the way. Television advertising prominently featured the ‘‘new’’ Chrysler winged logo—actually the old one, resurrected after a hiatus of more than 60 years. Jay Kuhnie, Chrysler-Plymouth communications manager, announced in a press release to accompany the launch that ‘‘Chrysler’s winged badge symbolizes the [company’s] proud heritage of design and engineering while serving as a hallmark for the brand.’’ Three of the four TV spots were entitled ‘‘Badge,’’ ‘‘Decisions,’’ and ‘‘Sunbeam,’’ and the initial launch also included six print ads. Both print and TV showed champagne-colored vehicles, which the company had selected because of their elegant appearance, and a print ad for Chrysler Town & Country announced that the car was ‘‘what a penthouse looks like on the ground floor.’’ In total Chrysler ran 17 electronic spots and 23 print ads for all lines, including Plymouth, Jeep, and Eagle. The second salvo of advertising appeared on network television in January, during the National Football League play-offs leading up to the Super Bowl. According to Gazdik and Buyikian in Adweek, ‘‘The spot, set to ethereal music, features a montage of winged objects, such as butterflies and airplanes, intertwined with champagne-colored Chryslers.’’ This was the ‘‘Wings’’ spot, in which a voice-over announced, ‘‘For ideas to take flight they must have wings.’’ Soon afterward the company ran a number of TV spots and print ads for the Chrysler Concorde, advertising that a January 15 press release stated would ‘‘develop the concept of ‘ideas in flight.’ ’’ To promote the 300M in May, the company brought out perhaps the most distinctive of its television ads, one it had actually begun creating more than four decades before. ‘‘Chrysler uncovered an old industrial film,’’ wrote Halliday in Advertising Age, ‘‘with Bob Roger, chief engineer on those cars [the letter series], and many of his comments from snippets of the film appear in three new 30-second spots for the entry-luxury 300M.’’ The new spots added a tag line to go with ‘‘Engineered to be great cars,’’ announcing, ‘‘The technology has changed. But the soul lives on.’’
‘‘Bringing a car to market is a $1 billion to $4 billion investment,’’ Bruyn told Lach in American Demographics. ‘‘As a result, you like to be right.’’ By the end of the year it appeared that Chrysler had been. According to information compiled by the Automotive News Data Center, in one month—August 1998—Chrysler sold nearly 4,500 of the new 300Ms. This was more than one-third of the car’s total sales since it had appeared earlier in the year. Within the so-called near-luxury market, the 300M already had a 10.8 percent share, a figure exceeded only by the Volvo 70 series and the Lexus ES 300. Chrysler appeared to be on the upswing, and increased sales spread to other models. Meanwhile, it prepared to launch its PT Cruiser, an unusual-looking entrant in the sport utility category that Jeffrey Ball of the Wall Street Journal described as ‘‘part 1920s gangster car, part 1950s hot rod, and part London taxicab.’’ The vehicle was the product of an innovative strategy in marketing research pioneered by French medical anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille. Rapaille’s studies with language and his attempts to teach autistic children in Switzerland during the 1960s led him to the ideas that he believed would help researchers discover consumers’ hidden and most instinctive desires. Whatever the results of the PT Cruiser, it was sure to live up to the promise of a Chrysler engineer, who told Ball, ‘‘We didn’t make a generic vehicle.’’
The PT Cruiser’s unusual design was a hallmark of Chrysler’s strategy: melding the best of the past with the most prominent elements of the future. Wrote Lach, ‘‘The egg-crate grille [of the 300M] harks back to earlier styles in the letter series, and simple analog dials dot the dashboard.’’ Inside, however, the car suggested quite a different era, with plush leather seats, a climate-control system, and a nine-speaker stereo system. Given the company’s interest in marketing to the future—which included changing demographics, with more and more baby boomers becoming empty nesters—Lach asked, ‘‘Is a 300 convertible on Chrysler’s drawing board? Only time will tell