A trustworthy car salesman

Zetsche ads evoke German precision

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CHICAGO -- He doesn't wear a cowboy hat and mask like the Lone Ranger, an early Chrysler pitchman.

Nor does he wear a tuxedo and promote the rich Corinthian leather, as actor Ricardo Montalban did.

And forget the expensive imported Burberry raincoat that Lee Iacocca sported when imploring shoppers to "Buy American."

All he has is a bushy mustache, a pronounced accent and a wry sense of humor. And he uses those well as he runs a crossover vehicle into a crash barrier, expertly folds passenger seats into the floor of a minivan and bounces a soccer ball off his head.

That the results are funny and seemingly effective is a tribute to the Chrysler Group's latest spokesman: Dieter Zetsche. Yes, the man who runs corporate parent DaimlerChrysler AG.

Since July 1, Dr. Z, as he is now known, has joined such notables as former catcher and sportscaster Joe Garagiola, singers Tina Turner and Frank Sinatra and, of course, Montalban and Iacocca in espousing Chrysler products.

Zetsche, a German born in Istanbul, Turkey, who holds a doctorate in engineering, was first brought in to straighten out the Chrysler Group. Now he's back to call attention to his handiwork in the fact that Chrysler shares engineering and technology expertise as well as parts and components with Mercedes-Benz, its partner since DaimlerBenz and Chrysler merged in 1998.

It's the partnership that has spawned the Crossfire roadster and coupe that are 39 percent Mercedes, and the 300C, which at 20 percent Mercedes is credited with reviving the Chrysler brand.

Perhaps more important, the ads are meant to put distance between Chrysler and General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., automakers struggling to make a profit in North America.

Zetsche is put off by media reports about the ailing domestic automakers that include Chrysler by inference; he speaks the language of success in the auto industry. He's behind not only the 300C but also the Dodge Magnum and Charger, two other strong sellers. And he resurrected the "Hemi" engine, a favorite of the performance crowd.

The big question, however, is the timing of the ad campaign, which was unveiled when Chrysler introduced a new employee pricing and money-back guarantee program this month.

"We've seen more people in the store, but is it Dieter or the pricing incentive?" asked Ray Riley, of Knauz Chrysler in Lake Bluff, Ill.

"The message of Mercedes engineering in our products was long overdue, but that message dilutes our pricing message," said Dave Taylor, a Chrysler-Dodge dealer in Kankakee, Ill. "There's not as much traffic as people thought there would be. People are missing the pricing message with the Dr. Z thing, which clouds the pricing."

Then there's the clouding effect of Zetsche's thick German accent. "I'm not sure everyone understands him," Taylor said.

And even if they do, Riley said, people want to know who he is and whether he's real. No matter. When Montalban promoted "rich Corinthian leather," no one could prove Corinthian leather even existed. But it did sell cars.

"When you call him [Zetsche] on his cell phone, his message is, `Sorry, I'm not awailable,' but the accent is part of the charm and appeal and shows this guy isn't faking it," said Jason Vines, head of public relations for Chrysler Group.

Before doing the ads, Chrysler's ad agency, BBDO in Detroit, tested consumers to learn how Zetsche would be received. As well as he was by Chrysler, it turns out.

"Our research showed that Dieter scored through the roof with consumers across America. He came across as compelling, charming, trustworthy, and all with a sense of humor," said Joe Garcia, president of BBDO in Detroit. "He's not a wooden head."

Yet, he's no Lee Iacocca on the recognition scale.

"Very few [Americans] know who Zetsche is. We surveyed consumers when the ads started and most thought he was amusing and interesting, but that he was a character an ad agency made up. Many think of him as a stand-up comic," said Art Spinella, general manager of CNW Marketing Research.

Iacocca appeared in memorable ads throughout the 1980s with the signature tag line, "If you can find a better car, buy it." Last summer, Chrysler brought back the octogenarian and father of the minivan for its ads, teaming him with rapper Snoop Dogg to help bridge the generation gap.

"Zetsche is not like Iacocca, who most people got to know for years before he started doing ads," Spinella said.

"Don't get me wrong. The ads have been received well, but have had the biggest impact where Chrysler is already strong, on the East Coast and in the Midwest, where there's the most reverence for German engineering," Spinella said. In the South, "the message about German engineering just reinforces the belief that Chrysler isn't an American company."

In the first two weeks of the ad campaign, there were 406,000 visits to the AskDrZ.com Web site created as a companion to the ads. And 2.2 million questions were asked of Zetsche, the bulk of them about when Chrysler will bring out the new high-performance Dodge Challenger and the high-mileage Smart (in 2008).

Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda put the ad campaign into perspective. "We wanted to have some fun. People must have a positive attitude toward your product before they consider your product," he said

Jim Mateja writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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