Italian automaker Fiat, which was founded in Turin in 1899, and U.S. automaker Chrysler, which was established in 1925 in Detroit, first joined forces in 2009 after the latter received a government bailout to stay afloat. Five years later, Fiat acquired a 100% stake and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was born.
Now, in what is perhaps an unlucky coincidence, the home nations of these automobile manufacturers are among the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. What is lucky, however, is that Fiat’s experience dealing with the pandemic in Italy helped its U.S. counterpart prepare their sister brands for what was to come.
Italy, for example, went on lockdown on March 9, which remains in effect as now (though Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the government may start easing restrictions by the end of the month as the nation’s daily death toll continues to fall).
Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer of FCA, was quarantined in Milan up until a few weeks ago after preparing to launch the all-electric Fiat 500 (which he called “our new baby”) at the Geneva International Motor Show, which was supposed to take place March 5-15.
After the exhibition was canceled, Francois said he came up with the “brilliant-stupid idea” of presenting the car “at the epicenter of the epidemic,” which is Milan. (Actually, it’s nearby Bergamo, but both are located in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy.)
In a nearly 18-minute video posted five days before the nationwide lockdown, Francois, who is also president of the Fiat brand, held a press conference on the empty streets of Milan in an act of solidarity with the city and country because, he says in the video, the launch of the Fiat 500 was “just too important to be canceled or postponed,” but also, “to send out a positive signal because, right now, Milan needs it.”
Fiat posted the video on YouTube and, Francois said, “Italians loved it—wow.” Indeed, the Italian version has nearly 1 million views. (The English version has 700,000.)
Since then, Fiat has also partnered with iconic filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola on a video called “A Letter of Hope.”
“Today, more than ever, from Little Italy to Big Italy, siamo con te (we are with you),” Coppola says in the spot created with the boutique agency Migrante.
Francois said Coppola asked to deliver a message of hope to his fellow Italians, which he recorded on his iPhone two weekends ago. The April 7 release coincided with both World Health Day and Coppola’s birthday and, Francois said, “I think he knocked it out of the park.”
It ends with the hashtag #WeAreItaly. FCA said the video “reflects the solidarity of supporting drivers through this shared global experience.”
The shift to social
Seeing what Italy went through made Francois realize early on what was coming to the U.S., and that FCA’s brands would have to alter their messaging here, too. The carmaker began gathering ideas in early March, even as some of his U.S. colleagues remained skeptical.
“When we started, I said, ‘TV is important and we’re going to be on TV as long as we can [and] our dealerships [will be] open as long as we can push cars, but at some point, the authorities will close the dealerships,’ and everyone was so incredulous,” he said. “Rightfully so, they said, ‘Really?’ It’s normal. Remember yourself a month ago. My Italian/French staff two months ago were saying, ‘Yeah, it’s not going to happen here.’”
As a service to our community, much of our coronavirus-related coverage is available to everyone with a free Adweek membership. Never miss a key story by signing up for our daily First Things First newsletter and consider gaining full access and supporting our journalism with an Adweek Pro Subscription.