Fiat Retunes US Strategy Without JLo

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Fiat wants a mulligan for how it launched last year in the U.S. market, after a few decades away. Its sexy commercial for the new Fiat 500 Abarth that ran during the Super Bowl was just the opening gambit in Fiat’s new strategy for recovering from last year’s disappointments.

Now, the brand that owns Chrysler is retuning its US strategy, launching an entire program that it hopes will finally add Fiat as a viable small car line in its U.S. stable. The initiative includes more advertising, zero-percent financing for consumers, new products, fresh brand leadership and a determination finally to get on the same page as Fiat’s 140 U.S. dealers.

There’s little understating how badly things have gone for Fiat in America, as its attempt to imbue the Fiat 500 as a hip ride led to its US marketing head’s ouster. The brand’s music video-style spot starring Jennifer Lopez and a track (“Papi”) from her latest album, intended to attract female customers, was panned when it debuted in September, while JLo’s Fiat-laden official music video proved an embarrassment of product placement overload.[more]

Fiat USA’s Lopez follow-up commercial in October (“My World”) and a third in November (“Gucci Elegance,” touting Fiat’s collaboration with the Italian design house) didn’t help matters any.

Despite gasoline prices around $3.50 a gallon that have continue to nudge American consumers toward small cars, Fiat managed to sell fewer than 22,000 units in the U.S. market from the brand’s re-launch early last year through January of this year.

But Fiat executives can’t just blame Lopez; in fact, she and her personal brand have been on a nice little run in the past year since she resurfaced as a judge on American Idol.

The most brand-friendly entertainer in Hollywood, Lopez continued existing deals such as L’Oreal while striking new brand relationships including Harman Kardon, P&G’s Gillette Venus women’s razor, putting her name on a fashion line for Kohl’s and, most recently, attending Carnival in Brazil with Brahma beer. She’s also part of Univision’s American Idol-style talent search in Latin America called Q’Viva! The Chosen, which has been picked up by Fox.

In addition, Fiat was troubled by reticence among American Chrysler dealers to invest $3 million or more establishing separate Fiat showrooms when they saw evidence of only one car in the lineup for the forseeable future, and not enough other support from the brand. Fiat also ended up replacing its North American brand head, Laura Soave, after just 20 months. The Fiat brand is now overseen by Tim Kuniskis, who also heads up marketing for the Chrysler brand, and Matt Davis (watch below) who oversees the brand’s product marketing in North America.

Now, Fiat is promising not only the red-and-black Abarth version of the 500, which goes on sale in the U.S. in the spring, but also an electric version later this year, and next year a four-door 500L model and a vehicle badged under the company’s Alfa Romeo brand that will be offered to U.S. Fiat dealers.

Will all of that be enough to supercharge Fiat sales in the U.S.? If not, rising gasoline prices also might help.

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