Chrysler doesn’t understand public relations. Just a week after the person manning the organization’s official Twitter account tweeted that “no one [in Detroit] knows how to ****ing drive,” the company launched a battle against a small t-shirt shop in Detroit’s city limits.
The small business, Pure Detroit, had been selling t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Imported from Detroit,” a slogan it presumably borrowed from Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad campaign. After failing to convince the store that this was hurting its trademark, Chrysler filed suit in federal court against the small retailer.
From a public relations and social media standpoint, this makes no sense. Wouldn’t Chrysler want its catchy new slogan to become viral and further help its damaged brand as well as the city the company pretends to care so much about? Even if Chrysler doesn’t make a few dollars on each t-shirt Pure Detroit sells, isn’t the inherent value of consumers talking about and advertising the brand worth a trademark problem in this instance? Chrysler needs the help.
In addition to the David-and-Goliath issues that will surely negate the gains Chrysler made from its Super Bowl ad, the optics of a bailed-out company that will soon be mostly owned by European carmaker Fiat suing a small business dedicated to preserving and restoring Detroit’s image are terrible.
Chrysler’s North America headquarters is indeed located in the Detroit area, but not in Detroit proper, and the Chrysler 200 that the company’s “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl ad promotes is actually built in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
Pure Detroit has three locations, all within the city limits, and the company’s website encourages visitors to “Spend an afternoon and shop in the City.”
Chrysler is talking the talk. Pure Detroit is walking the walk. Pure Detroit is inspiring people to help a city “rise from the ashes,” as Chrysler claims to do in its ad. Maybe Chrysler simply doesn’t wish to sell cars or promote economic activity in a country its CEO Sergio Marchionne claims is full of “shysters.”
Yes, when Fiat/Chrysler tried to refinance the generous bailouts from American taxpayers, Marchionne called the American taxpayers “shysters” for the supposedly high-interest rates it was forced to pay — in order to stay in business. Until the loans get paid back, Marchionne can’t complete Fiat’s purchase and possibly move even more jobs out of the Detroit area to Italy or elsewhere.
Regardless, Chrysler needs to either embrace the viral success of its temporary campaign or end it.
Protecting permanent trademarks and intellectual property is a routine business practice and in general shouldn’t be discouraged. Not everything that hits the Internet is free or fair game. But just as Wendy’s viral “Where’s the Beef” ad became a net positive for Wendy’s — even after former Vice President Walter Mondale used it — “Imported from Detroit” could have become a net positive for Chrysler.
To continue a campaign based on reviving a city while simultaneously going after the small businesses that actually inhabit that city is a terrible way to go about restoring a tarnished brand. As taxpayers, the shop’s owners should expect more sympathy from a company they were forced to bail out.
Rory Cooper is Director of Communications at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.