As it begins selling the tiny Fiat 500, Fiat North America will be targeting younger shoppers who might also be looking at Toyota's Yaris or the Mini Cooper.
Speaking at the monthly New York meeting of the International Motor Press Association, Laura Soave, Fiat's North America brand chief, prefaced her presentation with a brand-positioning video that is not a preview of Fiat TV spots to come -- she said there won't be any -- but of the brand's positioning as it rolls out the first two models in the U.S. this year. "Some people take control of their lives ... and live it with passion. That's the Italian way," says the voiceover. The putative tag line: "Life is best when driven."
"We will sell around 50,000 units between the U.S. and Canada in the first year," said Soave. "But we aren't a national brand -- I'm only in 37 states -- so national TV won't make sense. We will be regional, with lots of online, grassroots, and events so people can learn about the brand and experience the cars."
Technically, Soave works for Chrysler, LLP, of which Fiat will be a fifth brand after Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram. But she said the Fiat brand will be new territory for Chrysler dealers, who constitute almost all the retailers for Fiat in the U.S.
To prepare them, the company took dealership general managers and sales consultants to Los Angeles this week for two full days of training. "We took them through training on the sales process, customer service -- 99% are current Chrysler dealers who have no experience with these customers. That's where we are really spending a lot of time with now: how to market to these new consumers."
Soave said the opportunities for Fiat are in the "melting pot" younger demographics. "We have done research on younger buyers, and have found that they are very excited about Italian brands and are very open in general to products from other markets." she said. "The small car segment is growing and by 2014 we expect it to double. And consumers are more open to small cars."
The company will launch three variations of the car in both hatchback and cabrio versions: the Pop, Sport and Lounge models. "It's not a pricing strategy as much as a lifestyle strategy," she says, although Pop would be the entry-level vehicle, starting at around $15,500.
The Pop and more expensive Sport and Lounge models are priced between Toyota Yaris on the downmarket side and BMW's Mini Cooper brand, which is more expensive. Yaris is the segment leader. "We are more expensive than Yaris, but we offer an extended warranty, and Italian design and styling that Yaris doesn't have. We think people will be willing to pay a grand more for that," said Soave.
Next year, the company launches the "Abarth" performance model and a fully electric version in 2012. The year after that the company will implement a retail-design program for Fiat studios within the 130 dealerships tapped to sell the brand.
"This has been a fast program; the good thing is there are 130 dealers we can get on conference calls with and fix things quickly," said Soave.