On any other day, the actor Sean Penn would score a seat at the head table for a private luncheon where he was about to be honoured for his extraordinary earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.
But on this particular April day in Chicago all the seats next to the host, Chrysler Group’s chief marketing officer, Olivier François, were taken. There was the Dalai Lama of Tibet; former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev; former Polish president Lech Walesa; American political activist Jody Williams; and microcredit pioneer Muhammed Yunus of Bangladesh—all Nobel Peace Prize winners meeting in the US for the first time at an annual summit to tackle global problems like violence and poverty. Penn and his family were seated at the next table. Chrysler was the sponsor.
A smiling François warmly greeted each one of his special guests (Penn included), chatting in his heavy French accent about the challenges of achieving peace, prosperity and social justice, and assuring them of Chrysler’s commitment to their causes. “Peace is not merely the absence of violence,” he said. “You’ve reminded us that peace begins when the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered and the poor are given a voice.
Peace is precarious unless it is based on justice and human dignity.”
It was a moving tribute to the power of the individual to better the human condition. But how does rubbing elbows with the Dalai Lama and backslapping Sean Penn help Chrysler sell cars? Simple, explains François, 50, one of Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne’s most trusted aides. “People buy products, but they are also buying into brands and buying into values,” he says. “I think it’s probably valuable to tell you what I’m standing for and try to find a connection between you and me through our shared values.”
A Paris-born poet and songwriter with degrees in economics, marketing, finance and political science, François is guided by emotional instincts and political idealism more than research or focus groups. In his short tenure at Chrysler Group, he boosted ad spending by 36 percent to an estimated $1.2 billion in 2011. But it isn’t how much he’s spent that’s made his reputation. It’s how well.
He first gained notoriety during the 2011 Super Bowl with an audacious two-minute paean to Detroit’s hardscrabble spirit starring rap star Eminem. The estimated $6 million commercial reminded America that Chrysler was not only still alive but also proudly turning itself around. Over the next two weeks consideration of the Chrysler brand jumped two percentage points on Edmunds.com, according to the auto shopping website. More than 15 million people have viewed the ad on YouTube.
He followed it up during this year’s Super Bowl with “Halftime in America,” starring Clint Eastwood, an ad he describes as a rallying cry for struggling Americans. Again he struck a nerve. The ad generated 18 million views on YouTube. Saturday Night Live even did a spoof. “There is a moment to speak about the product,” François says of the ad. “But there is also a moment to give this product a soul.”
Not everyone is buying it. “This is an Italian-owned car company blatantly trying to guilt America into buying more of its cars and trucks, and willing to do it by using any means necessary,” wrote automotive blogger Peter DeLorenzo, a 22-year veteran of Detroit’s ad business. “Even if they have to drag Clint Eastwood into the mix in order to pull it off.”
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(This story appears in the 22 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)