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Fiat turns to Charlie Sheen to hawk the new Abarth

Hollywood 'bad boy' Charlie Sheen with supermodel Catrinel Menghia in the Fiat 500 Abarth commercial.

It may be small, but one thing the Fiat 500 has is a lot of attitude – all the more so since the Italian maker introduced the sporty new Abarth edition.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that what the marque’s global brand boss calls the “bad boy of the Fiat line-up” should turn to the bad boy of the entertainment world, Charlie Sheen, to draw some attention.

The spot, which was pulled at the last minute from the Super Bowl, gave Fiat officials some “sleepless nights,” a senior official admits, but after a delayed launch has been generating plenty of buzz from a brand that had barely registered on most consumers’ radar until recently.

Fiat got off to a nearly disastrous debut little more than a year ago, sales for all of 2011 coming in at barely half the initial forecast – leading Fiat to oust its U.S. marketing chief.

First Drive: Fiat 500 Abarth

Since then, the maker has ramped up its marketing efforts, first with a series of controversial Jennifer Lopez commercials, following up with supermodel Catrinel Menghia’s racy “Seduction” spot first aired during the Super Bowl.

Now comes Sheen, shown racing the Fiat 500 Abarth inside his mansion during a party – the “tiger blood” actor explaining how much fun he is having while under “house arrest.”

The maker considered running the spot — produced by Detroit ad agency Doner — during the Super Bowl but it was pulled in favor of another spot that featured Menghia alone.  It proved one of the most popular spots airing during the much-watched broadcast and has since been seen another 8 million times on youtube.

The recent, heavy emphasis on celebrity-tinged advertising is a significant shift in direction for Fiat, acknowledged Tim Kuniskis, the Chrysler marketing veteran who took over U.S. operations when Laura Soaves was unceremoniously ousted last autumn.

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“We can’t sell this car as a commodity,” Kuniskis explained during an interview in Las Vegas, where Fiat was giving journalists the first chance to drive the new 500 Abarth.  “We have to click on the emotional box,” which is clearly something that the two most recent ads – with Menghia and Sheen have accomplished.

The base Fiat 500 is one of the smallest cars on U.S. roads, but the Abarth edition pumps some of what Sheen might call “tiger blood” into the minicar, bumping its horsepower count from 101 to 160.  Company officials learned a painful lesson last year after missing their 50,000-unit sales target by nearly half.

“Clearly, a year ago, it was difficult to get a clear sense of where the brand would go,” Olivier Francois, Fiat’s global chief executive, said during a recent interview.  “We just didn’t know.”

Fiat officials no longer talk hard numbers, but while the Abarth is not expected to become the volume model in the line-up it clearly is the classic halo car.

The Sheen spot, dubbed “House Arrest,” is “very clever,” said analyst Rebecca Lindland, of IHS Automotive.  “It plays up the “look-at-me element of the car.”

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The sudden surge of TV ads, which began with the less successful JLo spots, marks a distinct shift in direction from the strategy former U.S. brand boss Soaves had outlined.  In fact, there was virtually no marketing at all until the fall campaign.  That was extraordinarily frustrating for the dealers who agreed not only to carry the brand – which was returning to the U.S. market for the first time in two decades – but invest in costly standalone showrooms.

“The dealers didn’t feel like they had enough of a voice,” suggested Lindland, something Fiat’s new U.S. chief Kuniskis doesn’t deny.

If anything, Fiat – the Italian partner of Chrysler Group – pointedly turned to those dealers for help in developing its all-new marketing strategy.

“They gave us a laundry list of things they wanted,” and much of that list has been incorporated in the marketing campaign – including the use of high-profile celebrities like Sheen.

Whether the new approach will work better than the original strategy remains to be seen but Kuniskis insists that most measures are showing positive signs, including traffic both on the Fiat website and in showrooms.  The challenge is still to translate traffic into actual sales.

Fiat officials admit they fell well short of their original goal – which they also call “unrealistic.”  The problem is that it will take time to flesh out the showroom like they now acknowledge will be necessary to make Fiat truly viable in the U.S. market.

But the Abarth is a critical step in that direction.  It joins the basic Fiat 500 Coupe and Convertible models, as well as the limited-edition Gucci 500, landing in showrooms just before Fiat introduces a new battery-electric version of the minicar.

The maker also has confirmed plans to introduce a stretched version, the four-door 500L, which will make its debut this week at the Geneva Motor Show.  It will measure about two feet longer than the current coupe but still remain one of the market’s smaller offerings.  Yet another model is reportedly in the works, though Kuniskis declined to confirm specifics.

Despite the slow launch, he insisted that things are moving in the right direction.  Indeed, sales jumped 21% in March, giving the brand its best month since its U.S. re-launch.

But it will take more than one or two strong months to make the Fiat brand a success, observers caution.  So, don’t be surprised to see even more in-your-face advertising from the likes of Menghia and Sheen.

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