The recent (and steeply sloping) sales and revenue downturn over at the American side of the German-American hybrid has caused folks to speculate whether the muckety-mucks running the day-to-day show under Chrysler Group CEO Tom "two shakes a day" LaSorda over in the Auburn Hills, MI HQ have been making the wisest of choices. Of LaSorda's executive squad, no washroom key carrying member of the team's being talked about in hushed tones more than Joe Ebehardt, the sired-in-Stuttgart exec veep in charge of Chrysler Group sales, marketing, service and probably some other stuff too. We've heard all manner of stories surrounding the main marketing and sales stud at the Chrysler Group — everything from shouting matches with dealers to botched marketing decisions regarding creative — but recently it's become a crescendo of crap — reaching heights that force even those of us in a permanent half-drunk state to start asking questions like "Hey Joe, what do you know, how come Chrysler's sales can't seem to grow?" Let's take a closer look at what we've heard, plus some of our own analysis, after the jump.
Let's start off with Eberhardt's marketing duties and responsibilities.
First, let's keep in mind I'm a staunch believer that TV commercials and ad campaigns don't sell cars. Sure, they can sell boxes of cereal, but a car's the second most costly purchase a consumer will make — and as such, the best a 30-second TV spot can do is shape the perception of a brand or model among potential buyers. That perception dictates how a consumer will feel about a particular vehicle — and it may even compel them to visit their local dealership. But once there, it's the sales interaction, test-drive experience and the all important "Jalopnik dashboard knock test" (patent pending) that ends up selling the vehicle. (Oh yeah, and if it looks pretty and stuff.) The one exception is when a TV spot promotes a sales incentive. Then, like a public service announcement, it merely provides information on existing products. But branding and sales incentive campaigns are totally separate beasts, and it's never in an automaker's best interest to muddle the message of a brand campaign by attaching a sales incentive campaign to it, right?
Obviously that's not what Joe Eberhardt thought. According to two sources, Eberhardt was the executive who made the decision to slap a zero-percent financing campaign to the ass-end of the now defunct and rightfully lambasted Dr. Z campaign. It's no wonder folks were confused by the commercials. A barely-explained incentive-deal graphic hooked to a vague branding campaign turned a light-hearted attempt to tout the Chrysler Group's "merger of German engineering and American design" into a convoluted and confusing mess of messages. But what makes the decision even more curious was that Eberhardt took the already risky proposition of using a CEO to build brand image, and upped the risk factor by tie-barring his appearance in the ads with Chrysler sales numbers. Eberhardt did the one thing a good soldier's not supposed to do. He left his general open for attack.
But we hear the Dr. Z / zero-financing wasn't the only iffy decision on the marketing side Eberhardt's made — we also hear he made a hardcore push to anoint the New York office of BBDO, and specifically NY creative director David Lubars, as the new creative lead for the Chrysler Group. And from what we hear, that decision's resulted in the strangest commercial we've ever seen — the Dodge Nitro "Planet" ad. (If you haven't yet seen it, here's the 30-second and 60-second versions, spooled up for your pleasure.) If you can figure out its intended message, feel free to let us in on it.
But the questions come not only on the marketing side of Eberhardt's world, but also on the sales side. As the exec veep in charge of selling vehicles, Eberhardt plays a pretty big role in dealer relations — and from what we've heard recently, that should probably be amended to read "Eberhardt plays a pretty big role in straining dealer relations." If you'll remember, right after we were out in Auburn Hills checking out Chrysler Group CEO Tom LaSorda running around with water on his head to raise money for the United Way, there was a sat-call with Chrysler's dealers with a simple message — no Dodge Caliber and fast-selling CUV's until dealers bought up as many of the unsold Dodge Ram pickups and Durango SUV's as they could hold on their lots. This was obviously met with some not-so-happy sounds from dealers — despite offers of financing deals and incentives to help them pay for the inventory Chrysler planned to pile on their lots. But they went along with it.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. Eberhardt was meeting with the owners of some of Chrysler's largest dealers — and all of them were livid with Eberhardt over the continued shoving of unsold inventory down their throats. According to sources, when dealers pleaded for continued help on financing and an end to the requirement to buy more '06 model trucks and SUV's, Eberhardt became enraged and began to scream at the dealers — something along the lines of "If you were any good at selling [trucks and SUV's], this wouldn't be a problem for you!" Good for Eberhardt — an exec always willing to share the blame — because obviously the dealers had forgotten how giddy with excitement they'd been a month earlier over the prospects of having to sell a bunch of gas-guzzlin' pickups and SUV's.
I've heard there are some new faces over in Auburn Hills as of late — some people carrying bags that say "Mercedes-Benz" on them. I can't help but wonder if they're there to do what some people have said they're there to do — watch Joe Eberhardt like a hawk.
Chrysler Group CEO LaSorda Carries The Water Weight Of Unsold Trucks And SUVs Very Well; Chrysler Tells Dealers To Eat Their Durangos — How Can They Have Any Calibers If They Don't Eat Their Trucks and SUV's?; Ad Watch: The Dodge Nitro's So Heavy, Man [internal]