When Fiat moved Ram out of the Dodge garage, the brand was forced to find its soul. It did not help that as those gas prices went through the $4 roof, the Durango -- once one of the top-selling truck-based SUVs -- had no place to go but down, and that the car lineup was -- to be kind -- uninspired.
One could argue that the brand began trying to exhume its car credibility in late 2007 when, under then-owner N.Y.-based private equity firm Cerberus, Dodge started taking orders for the third-generation Challenger -- a nameplate that had not seen daylight since the Mitsubishi-built, econo-boxy, second-generation vehicle was euthanized in 1983. The third-gen Challenger represents an effort by Dodge to get back to "Dodgeness" by offering up a modern take on the classic car.
But the new Challenger, which will now include a version with the famous Hemi engine, is a low-volume muscle car, a halo for the brand. Trouble is, halo vehicles are only halos if other cars in the lineup have the chutzpah to wear them. Ralph Gilles, appointed head of all things Dodge last year when Fiat bought the Chrysler group, promises that such is the case. He says the entire lineup -- including the Town and Country minivan -- is about to get the kind of street cred that Challenger epitomizes.
Gilles, one of those rare marketing executives who started out as a vehicle designer, was behind the Chrysler 300, introduced when Daimler controlled the company. He became Dodge CEO when Fiat grabbed the Chrysler LLC grille last year. Gilles says, in so many words, that now that Ram has been spun off as its own truck brand, the goal is to make Dodge represent for the street what Jeep represents for the trail.
To achieve that the brand is prepping six new or redesigned cars and a lineup of "lifestyle packages" as well as new ads, events and sponsorships and direct-marketing efforts aimed at Dodge fans -- all to imbue all of the Dodge vehicles with a performance-driving feel and image.
"We've spent the last year redefining and building the Dodge brand," said Gilles, whom the company calls "president and CEO" of the Dodge brand. "Now we're going to show customers what the future of Dodge will look like."
The lineup includes a new Durango that has three rows of seats, a new version of the Charger, Avenger and Challenger, and new versions of the Journey crossover and Grand Caravan minivan, which Dodge says gets the "driving dynamics of a performance sedan and a little bit of attitude" with new suspension and a V6 motor.
The division is also renewing its relationship with Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series, NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, and Viper Cup racing series, where Dodge will have ride and drive events featuring the halo vehicles: Charger, Challengers and limited-edition factory-modified products wearing the SRT badge.
Gilles said that Dodge is also expanding its lineup of Dodge-licensed merchandise, a venture that has been handled for years by Los Angeles-based BrandSense.
"When I got this job, I went to our Web site to find some Dodge gear, but what I found didn't really speak to where the brand is going," he said. "So our merchandising manager and our design staff took a stab and really came up with an overall theme that both speaks to the Dodge brand and is something we'd be proud to wear, and it's really taking off."
The brand is also using social media to try to bring in prospects who are probably not shopping Dodge, namely 20- and 30-something consumers. Gilles said the company started going social this year and launched a new enthusiast Web site, RedLetterDodge.com.
"It was like watching the floodgates open. In just a few months, we surpassed more than 120,000 friends on our Dodge Facebook site alone. We see a huge opportunity to continue the conversation we're having with our fans."