Brand Video Case Study: Chrysler’s ‘Born Of Fire’ Ad Campaign

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Today, let’s dig into a brand video case study that’s a little old, but still contains many great lessons for brand storytelling today. I’m referring to Chrysler’s advertising campaign, “Born Of Fire”. It’s a classic example of the “Overcoming the Monster” story archetype, and also a great example of making your customer the star of the story. Released to rapturous acclaim in 2011, audiences loved its gritty tribute to Detroit. Moreover, the storytelling made the ad shine. Five years later, the ad marked a benchmark in best practices in brand storytelling.

The Brief

In 2009, the government bailed out a bankrupt Chrysler. Afterwards, Chrysler found themselves with a toxic brand. Chrysler’s brand was identified strongly with the collapse of Detroit, a now legendary story of business failure and lack of innovation. However, change was coming.

“America had a story to tell that was bigger than any cup holder, bigger than any Columbus Day sales event.”

– Oliver Francois, on the genesis of the campaign

The Chrysler 200, an affordable sedan, was redesigned to add a touch of luxury to the school run. Chrysler’s CMO, Olivier Francois, was new to the company, after the buyout had forced a merger with European carmaker Fiat. Francois wanted to create an inspiring story to push back against the negativity. Problem was, driving down picture-perfect highways wasn’t enough to rebut the narrative. Francois, a relative newcomer to Detroit, devised a story of a Detroit that was gritty yet creative, tough yet entrepreneurial.


The Creative

Enter Marshall Mathers III, also known as Eminem. The Detroit-based rapper had Oscars, Grammys and platinum records, but had eschewed most corporate endorsements. Convinced by the story of the proposed campaign, he agreed to licence the Oscar-winning song “Lose Yourself” and appear in the Superbowl ad.

Chrysler crafted the now-legendary Superbowl spot. It also interviewed three Detroit residents (a figure skater, a cop and a pastor) and uploaded the interviews to a video platform that was just six years old – Youtube. Each interviewee appeared in a brief cameo in the actual TV ad. It was organic, visceral storytelling. Shorter videos extolled the virtues of the car itself.


The Delivery

The social internet was still in its infancy, but the ad broke the Internet. Millions ran to Twitter and Youtube to rewatch the the ad, and Chrysler’s supplemental videos help capture eyes and hearts. Chrysler got a huge spike in online traffic and Youtube video views. Consumers, surveyed just one week after the ad launched, 87% had a favourable opinion of the Chrysler brand.

However, the big numbers weren’t in the Google Analytics. They were on the profit & loss. Consumer spending on the Chrysler brand soared 96% to $365.4 million in the U.S. alone. Brand loyalty doubled. For a campaign estimated to cost about $10 million, that’s significant ROI.

The Takeaways

So, you don’t have $10 million to spend on getting Eminem to drive your car straight through a Super Bowl TV spot? Don’t worry. That’s not the important part.

Here’s the important part.

  1. Make your weaknesses into strengths. The collapse of Detroit and the bailout of Chrysler had everyone writing obituaries for the American automobile industry. Oliver Francois read those obituaries – and saw something more. When have you faced a crisis that transformed you? Tell that story.
  2. Don’t underestimate a powerful emotional reaction. Eminem appeared in another Super Bowl spot that featured him as goofy cartoon character. Can you remember it? No? That’s because the emotional reactions generated by the earnest “Born Of Fire” spot is memorable.
  3. Be prepared to have a conversation. It’s only been five years since the campaign was launched, but social media would have been a key driver of this campaign in a way unimaginable in 2011. Chrysler was prepared; it had assets to fill out the story and encourage engagement with the campaign. Today, there would have been video custom-built for Facebook. In 2011, everyone was amazed that the TV ad was two minutes long. That’s because it wasn’t built for TV, it was built for Youtube.

“Born Of Fire” was wildly successful because it changed the conversation around Chrysler. As a brand video case study, it marks one of the early harbingers of contemporary marketing – story-driven, emotionally powerful and deeply engaging. Yes, it was big budget, but the secret sauce is available to every brand. It’s story.