Acknowledge, empathise and fix; Jeep marketer on owning and winning in a brand crisis

Jeep’s 2021 ‘Wave’ campaign featured Jack Thompson.
Jeep’s 2021 ‘Wave’ campaign featured Jack Thompson.

It takes a bold brand to admit it “got it wrong” and an even bolder marketer to declare this via a major marketing push.

But following an acknowledgment, a new brand platform and big brand campaign, the auto giant FCA Australia is on the up.

Having gone from selling nearly 35,000 cars in its peak 2014 year, down to 5524, the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles-owned car brand knew it needed a radical business transformation.

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Melbourne-based US-native Tom Noble, who oversees marketing and communications at FCA Australia, spanning all marketing for Jeep, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Chrysler brands in the Australian market, arrived in February 2020 and said it was clear the business had to “stop the decline”.

He was one of the new executive team that worked together to address the challenges and overhaul the strategy – which included a new marketing campaign and a new “I’m In” brand platform.

“While we had sold a lot of cars, unfortunately we sometimes didn’t provide the after sales care that we really needed to, so customers had problems,” he said.

“Whether it was because the prices of parts were too expensive or the service wasn’t good enough, we had to turn the negative conversation around Jeep into a positive one.”

Fiat Chrysler Australia head of marketing Tom Noble. Aaron Francis/The Australian
Fiat Chrysler Australia head of marketing Tom Noble. Aaron Francis/The Australian

Mr Noble previously ran marketing for the Mini car brand in the US, headed up Adidas global brand communications, and worked with the Nike brand. He also worked with local brands BMW Australia and the Australian Football League.

“Jeep is one of those iconic brands where there is a big community around it. It’s an emotional relationship that people have with their Jeep and when we didn’t get it right we were betraying that emotion and those positive feelings,” he said.

Mr Noble, who also worked at US ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, as well as at Saatchi & Saatchi New York, said the brand’s first step was to acknowledge there was an issue, empathise with the people who had the problem and put a plan in place to fix it.

Jeep got to work on repricing parts, adding lifetime roadside assist, a capped price service program, and increasing customer service and technical support. They then set about amplifying these actions across marketing to let people know they were listening.

This saw a large scale TV ad campaign roll out in June 2020 with its long-term ad agency Cummins&Partners.

Addressing the fact head on, that in some cases owning a Jeep wasn’t as enjoyable as driving one, Jeep was determined to fix it. The brand hijacked the well-loved “I bought a Jeep” ad campaign from 2012. Complete with original actors from the first ad, Jeep revived the classic slogan while also admitting mistakes and how it was fixing them.

“We didn’t have to start from zero. We used the awesome assets that people remembered, changed direction by admitting we sometimes got it wrong and were fixing it. That ad helped turn the business around in literally six months,” Mr Noble said.

“We were one of the few car brands that sold more cars in 2020 than 2019. So right in the middle of Covid, we went in the opposite direction of the market and outperformed; seeing a 20 per cent or so improvement over where everybody else was.”

Mr Noble said there was no typical writing a traditional brief for its ad agency, but more of a jumping into a crisis management point of view. He added that explaining to the global team that it needed to spend money on ads to acknowledge the fact that it didn’t always get it right, was an interesting conversation.

“We needed to stop the decline,” he said. “We could have gone out and run ads saying ‘hey we fixed the problem and it’s better come on in’, but the challenge was, how long before the business is ready for us to be able to communicate those changes?”

Almost a year after the successful old school ad revival, in May 2021 Jeep launched its pandemic-spawned Working Far From Home (WFFH) promotional experiential activation which gave adventurous Aussies the chance to work from its specially designed Spacecube. With the Spacecube in a remote part of Tasmania, accessible only by the most capable of 4×4 vehicles, Mr Noble said the WFFH competition exceeded expectations, gaining double the amount of entries expected, with more than 4000 people creating impressive video entries.

Jeep’s custom-built office pod in a part of Tasmania only accessible by 4×4 vehicles
Jeep’s custom-built office pod in a part of Tasmania only accessible by 4×4 vehicles

In the final of three major marketing moves in 18 months, in May this year Jeep rolled out a big brand campaign, “Jeep Wave”.

The ad featured Australian actor Jack Thompson who showcased the significance of the “wave” between passing Jeep drivers. The picturesque outback escapism-style campaign, matched with mellow guitar tunes, reflects the brand sentiment and acknowledgment that “you’re one of us”, continuing the brand’s mission to prove its support to customers.

Mr Noble is adamant Jeep could not have jumped straight into such an emotive – more cinematic-style – ad like that without addressing the issues in the “I bought a Jeep” revamp.

Despite spending 18 per cent less in media in 2021 vs 2020, Mr Noble said the wave campaign resulted in a 23 per cent higher order intake, 10 per cent more inquiries to dealers and 6 per cent more traffic to its website.

Overall, thanks to its business transformation, which has been reinforced with a trio of marketing moves, Jeep sales were up 49 per cent vs industry growth of 26 per cent in 2021.

Organic search has also steadily been accelerating and Mr Noble said significant growth in brand health has been clear with consumer quality ratings up four percentage points or 67 per cent (YouGov).

“Brand reputation, trust scores, recommend scores: all of these are all heading in the upper right of the graph and you do see a spike around every time we run our ads which shows we are heading in the right direction,” he said.

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