For FCA, no one brand was big enough for ‘Star Wars’

The Fiat 500e as a Stormtrooper. The “Star Wars” Tier 2 campaign paid off for most FCA brands.

Lucasfilm did Fiat Chrysler Automobiles a favor when it released Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December.

It’s not only prime time for blockbuster Hollywood releases; it’s also a crucial month for auto sales promotions. That’s why FCA, which partnered with the Walt Disney-owned studio to co-promote the film alongside five of its brands in a global effort, didn’t have to think too hard about what direction to take with its campaign.

The timing, said FCA marketing boss Olivier Francois, was perfect for Tier 2.

Tier 2 campaigns are less about brand building and more about telling people why they should buy a vehicle right now. They are intended to steer traffic to local dealerships and therefore can highlight multiple brands or vehicles.

For Tier 1 advertising, on the other hand, the subject of the tie-in must have some sort of unique connection to a brand, Francois said. He didn’t see those Tier 1 elements in Star Wars.

Plus, he said, Star Wars is “almost too big and too universal” to be tied to a single brand.

With other movie franchises, those ties come more naturally. “When you do Zoo-lander, this is Fiat, or Ron Burgundy, that had to be Dodge,” he said in an interview at the Detroit auto show last month. “When it comes to Star Wars, there’s no real brand connection. It’s a universal pop culture moment.”

The Star Wars tie-in allowed FCA to break from the traditional script for December advertising. There was no jolly Christmas music, snowflakes or Santa Claus. Instead, the commercials featured booming sound effects, desert landscapes, aerial space battles and a little Star Wars nostalgia.

In one ad, Dodge alluded to Darth Vader and his Stormtrooper army with a black Dodge Viper leading a squadron of white Chargers, Challengers and Durangos to the movie’s red-carpet opening. The notorious “Imperial March” provided the backdrop for the ad.

The Chrysler spot, while showing off its entire lineup, passed through various life stages of a Star Wars fan from the first time he saw the original as a child to when he took his own son to see the latest installment.

Francois said going against cultural expectations during the holidays was a risk, but he viewed it as an opportunity to stand out from the pack.

Besides, he said, the marketing did its job. In the U.S., FCA moved 218,777 vehicles in December for a 12 percent gain from the year-earlier period — with four of the brands in the Star Wars campaign seeing sales growth (only Chrysler declined).

“December is Christmas but also a blockbuster month,” Francois said. “Our choices are not always determined by subjective, artistic or creative criteria. We’re just accountable [for] the money we spend and the impact we make. It’s not art; it’s just bloody marketing.”

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