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June 27, 2010 The new Dodge brand is more hip, says president Ralph Gilles | | The Detroit News

The new Dodge brand is more hip, says president Ralph Gilles

Ralph Gilles sat at the head of the conference room table in Chrysler Group LLC's headquarters. The president of Dodge Car Brand, with eight months on the job, let out a sigh and disarmed the room with his smile.

"It's exciting," he said of all the work he's been doing since Fiat SpA took over as the head of Chrysler. "This place has never been buzzing like this before."

Indeed. Since the launch this month of 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Auburn Hills-based automaker is ready to launch a slew of new or redesigned vehicles.

Gilles, who has been at Chrysler since 1992, has led the refreshening of nearly every vehicle in the lineup. He expects even better things this fall, when the new Charger and crossover arrive.

Gilles agreed to an exclusive interview with The Detroit News and offered a glimpse of Dodge in the future, some of the vehicles that may or may not arrive, as well as how the brand will continue to evolve.

Q : How has Dodge changed since the November presentation (a day-long event when the company's broad plans were unveiled) by you, Fiat executives and others.

A : We're Ram-less for one.

But things are taking hold. We now have our 100,000th Facebook fan. We went from virtually nothing online a few months ago. The brand is becoming hipper already.

And the brand is getting controversial, in a good way. We're really starting to smell different, act different. We showed up a few weeks ago at the super bike event in Utah. We had a drift competition and hundreds, thousands of people were lining up for these thrill rides.

And then we had the World Cup ads.

Being in the World Cup touches my multicultural audience, it touches my sport enthusiasts, it touches my young-at-heart audience.

We're tying to give the brand a cool edge to it, with a lot of unexpected activity, where people are shaken aware of us, and it's working.

Q : When the new Charger arrives and it gets the Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, will the engine top 300 horsepower?

A : I'm not saying. We will investigate that and we are looking at a higher-power version of (the Pentastar V-6). It will have a unique power rating, I will say that.

Q : When the new Durango replacement arrives in November, will it be called a Durango?

A : We're actually debating the name as we speak.

Q :Will a new Dodge Viper appear in 2012 as a 2013 model?

We're looking that right now. We're talking to owners, and to people outside of the Viper circle. There's no timeline, no rush. I want to bring it out and make sure it's the right thing. The issue right now is the company is really focused on the year and the task at hand. We have a lot going on in '12.

Q : You have emphasized the Dodge lifestyle and even developed a website and clothing line, how has that progressed?

A : It's done very well. We've set up a site for our dealers, who also wanted access to that. We're looking at what sells. It's doing a lot better than we thought.

Q : What do things like apparel bring to the brand or to the customers?

A : It finishes the story. If people are passionate about their cars, they want to celebrate them. I went online on Day One of my new job and said, "I'm going to fill my closet with Dodge stuff" and it was all pretty boring.

Now you have this nouveau look, loud and proud NASCAR and more of a corporate look. We're trying to give you a choice. We don't know who you are.

Q : Dodge cut back some of its NASCAR funding this year. How has that worked out?

A : This year, we're doing a one-team deal. We're doing what we need to do. In less than two weeks, we're going to debut our new Challenger car. It really does look like a Challenger now. It's a big breakthrough. It looks like the car you can drive.

I love the drivers; they are phenomenal people, but they've taken a lot of the limelight. They are more of the stars than the cars themselves. We're making this experiment and will see what happens.

Q : What other sponsorships has Dodge taken?

A : I'm sponsoring the Rock and Roll marathon. It is a totally different dimension of people than the NASCAR people. So this is more of a fitness lifestyle. It's all incremental. Research shows us that this demographic is nobody that knows us right now. A very different socio-economic background. About 70 percent women and it's huge, growing like crazy.

Q : A lot of carmakers are embracing smaller, grass-roots kind of marketing. How do they help? And will they replace national campaigns?

A : It's more tactical. It's more focused. I'm still going to have a national presence. I'm always going to have a brand-centric national presence. At the ground level, I want to be very tactical. Go places where people don't expect you to be.

The thing about our cars. The 2011 models are so revamped, I want people to sit in them.

Additional Facts
Ralph V. Gilles

Gilles, a native New Yorker, was appointed president and chief executive officer, Dodge Car Brand, Chrysler Group LLC, October 2009.
He continues to lead Product Design as senior vice president, a position he was named to in June 2009.
Gilles graduated from Detroit's College for Creative Studies and earned an MBA from Michigan State University. Among his accomplishments was styling the 2005 Chrysler 300.
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