Fiat Does Show And Tell In N.Y. With New 500
Within the sub-compact car market, there should be a special niche for "Hi" cars. (Stealing that term from the mid-1990s ad campaign that Dodge used to position its Neon car as a kind of ersatz compact with a bubbly personality.)
What's the iconic "hi" car? Obviously, the VW Beetle circa mid-1960s. The one Woody Allen finds in the movie "Sleeper" that starts right up after having been buried for a century. These cars have been largely missing from American roads, replaced by commodities: ultra-practical, value and price boasting post-embargo cars that have defined the "b" segment for the last quarter century. But in recent years automakers are trying to inject personality back into the segment. Toyota's Scion brand goes in that direction -- as does, most notably, the return of the Mini Cooper.
Mini has actually moved into bigger vehicles recently (as if, approaching middle age, it has had to let out a few notches in the belt) with the somewhat larger Clubman and Countryman, although it is bringing out the Coupe this fall. Where's Beetle? With each evolutionary step, it is becoming less cute and more car.
Smart car? No -- it only seats two, for one thing, so it doesn't count. We'll talk when they roll out the ByFour, assuming they are still in the U.S. market after the failure of the ByTwo to spark a flame.
That leaves the new Fiat 500. Among the things Fiat got right were the interior and controls. Like Mini, it found a modern interpretation of the mid-1960s minimalist control deck, where a retro dash has a smattering of buttons and controls and the displays feature a single dial with readouts incorporated therein.
Because of its Italianate quirkiness, the new Fiat 500 is definitely a car likely to benefit more from experiential marketing than from a pure ad play, judging from a drive in it around Brooklyn, where people who had never seen the car had many questions about it: "Yo, what the heck is that!"
Laura Soave, who heads Fiat in North America (it's probably no accident that she was also a VW marketer), says that since small cars are to most people a commodity, grassroots marketing paired with a brand immersion experience helps differentiate the car. She was in New York's Times Square last weekend, where Fiat was doing just that: the company took over the block between 43rd and 44th streets to do a pop-up drive-in movie event, the first of several Fiat will do.
In addition to giving the event an Italian feel with free Ciao Bella ice cream, espresso drinks, tiramisu, even a bocce ball court, the company had 36 Fiat 500 cars parked in front of News Corp.'s big screen. Fiat had taken over the video billboard to show a pair of films over the weekend, part of a four-city, drive-in movie road show.
Soave said Fiat had 20 product experts on hand to explain the vehicle to the hundreds of thousands who came by. As might have been predicted, people were all over the diminutive cars. One man, who was down from Stamford, Conn. for the weekend, said he probably wouldn't buy the car for himself, but that his son will want to see it. "He'd love this," he said.
"We are definitely seeing a trend where the younger generation wants to simplify their lives. You can see this in the kinds of devices they use," says Soave, adding that so far Fiat is getting a much younger buyer into the 101 Chrysler Group dealerships that are selling cars in "Fiat Studios." "Also people who come into the studios are spending a lot of time -- up to three hours," she says.