Here’s a tough one: How do you market your company and your products in a politically divided nation, one where an increasing number of customers — and workers — feel that corporate interests don’t represent their political views, no matter which side of the political spectrum they are on?
You could try hiring Bruce Springsteen.
The Boss’s appearance in Jeep’s Super Bowl commercial Sunday — the first time the iconic rocker has ever appeared in an advertisement — represents the confluence of corporate branding at a high level and an iconic entertainment figure’s desire to make a statement to a divided nation.
But it also signals one useful way for CEOs to potentially approach the fracturing of their markets and workforces in the wake of our social and political division. By following Jeep’s lead in re-fostering the idea of a moderate middle in American life, corporate leaders may find the sweet spot they — and their customers and other constituents — have been looking for.
In the ad, called, of course, “The Middle,” (below, if you somehow haven’t see it already) Springsteen and Jeep are only obliquely associated. Springsteen’s real purpose is to issue a plea for deeply divided Americans to “come meet here in the middle.”
Symbolically in the commercial, the middle is represented by a chapel near Lebanon, Kansas, that is said to be situated over the exact geographic center of the Lower 48 states. Springsteen wants Americans to put aside today’s intense political and ideological differences and come together in a rhetorical and communal middle ground in an effort to keep the great national experiment on the rails.
“It’s no secret: The middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear,” Springsteen intones, over scenes of him in the U.S. Center Chapel.
“Now, fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not just the property of the fortunate few; it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from. It’s what connects us. We need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground.”
Springsteen finishes by urging Americans to come together to “cross this divide,” before Jeep ends the ad by putting on screen, “The ReUnited States of America.”
As much as Springsteen wanted to express such sentiments to a divided fan base and a riven American populace, getting him to appear was a major coup for Mike Manley, CEO of the Fiat Chrysler portion of Stellantis, the new transatlantic automaker, and Olivier Francois, Stellantis’s CMO.
“The Super Bowl being what it is, it’s an expensive buy, so it’s only worth doing if you’re going to create an impression that will last years beyond your commercial,” Francois told Chief Executive. He recalled Fiat Chrysler’s first success of several in that regard, the iconic “Born of Fire” ad during the Super Bowl in 2011 that featured Eminem and foretold the renaissance of Detroit. “So there’s a combination of expecting something strong and wanting to do something that’s going to leave a lasting impression.”
Francois has been able to lure the famous and reluctant before to Fiat Chrysler Super Bowl advertisements that have tended to be as much cultural statements as car-selling pitches. They have included Eminem, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood and, last year, Bill Murray.
In the case of Springsteen, Francois’s pursuit actually began at about the time Fiat Chrysler and its then-CEO, Sergio Marchionne, accepted the carcass of a bankrupt Chrysler Corp. from the U.S. taxpayer in 2009. As Francois was helping stabilize sales and the company’s brands with brilliant marketing for the first few years as Marchionne shored up products, operations and finances, Marchionne repeatedly demonstrated his personal interest in Springsteen and his music, often opening presentations to investors, analysts and journalists with some tune from The Boss in the background.
Manley, who was head of the Jeep brand until he succeeded Marchionne after the latter’s sudden death in 2019, also harbored the potential significance of a Springsteen endorsement. But it was Francois who – with his proven understanding of America’s cultural and political moods, and his extensive network of friends and contacts in the entertainment industry – had to keep hope alive.
The main way Francois did that was through his relationship with Jon Landau, a former journalist who’d profiled the young Springsteen for Rolling Stone nearly 50 years ago and soon was invited by the rising star to become his agent. Landau has served in that role ever since.
“Over the years, I served [Landau] with great ideas and scripts that he brought to Bruce – none of which came to reality,” Francois said. The Fiat Chrysler CMO last year even gave up on having the company’s ad agencies prepare briefs for potential scenarios that could star Springsteen.
But fortunately, David DeMuth, CEO of Doner, Fiat Chrysler’s regular marketing agency based in Southfield, Michigan, was a personal Springsteen fan who couldn’t give up on the idea of filming The Boss for his client. So DeMuth and his associates came up last year with yet another brief for Francois even though the latter hadn’t solicited one.
This idea revolved around using the Lebanon chapel as a symbol for an ad about national unification – starring Springsteen. Doner Executive Vice President Mike Stelmaszek came up with the idea, understanding that to pique Olivier’s interest the symbolism and the message needed to be as big as the ad’s potential star.
Then serendipity came into play. After responding to a New Year’s greeting by Landau a few weeks ago, Francois said, he figured he might as well send his friend one more script for Springsteen – Stelmaszek’s idea.
“Jon loved the idea as I described it to him and asked me to shoot the brief for him,” Francois said. Then even as the Super Bowl loomed just over a month away, Landau got back to Francois and said, “Bruce is willing to do it.” Francois immediately got a hold of Manley to get his buy-in and that of other top executives.
In a statement, Landau said, “Olivier Francois and I have been discussing ideas for the last ten years, and when he showed us the outline for ‘The Middle,’ our immediate reaction was, ‘Let’s do it.’ Our goal was to do something surprising, relevant, immediate and artful.”
Springsteen “wanted to do something for his country,” Francois said. “The country obviously is fraught with emotion on all sides. He wanted to take a stand, but stand in the middle.”
Doner’s concept didn’t change much, Francois said, but Springsteen “took the script and rewrote it a little bit. If he’s in, he’s all in, so he wanted to make it his own words.” Springsteen also collaborated on an original score for the ad rather than borrowing “name that tune” clips from any of his many hit songs.
Francois offered to make the shoot as easy as possible on The Boss – film it at his ranch in New Jersey, maybe even “in the comfort of his living room, and we could just post-produce” the scenes from the heartland, Francois said. “But he said no, and for ‘The Middle,’ he took a plane and landed on Sunday [January 31] at 8 am. On the day of a snowstorm in Hastings, Nebraska. He flew there because he didn’t want to have to fake anything.”
As “The Middle” was coming together through this mélange of factors and against some initially tough odds, Francois said, he contemplated that “magic is something you can’t plan for. And if we really want to make history with our commercials in the Super Bowl, apparently we have to rely not just on great connections but on magic and luck.”
“Literally, the intent of this ad was to deliver a healing message,” Francois said. “Together, all of us wanted to do literally a prayer.”