Why Maserati Had a Super Bowl Ad

A Super Bowl ad for the new Maserat Ghibli sedan -- the brand's most affordable entry in years -- was a surprise hit on Sunday night. Photo credit: Maserati.

As usual, many big-name automakers checked in with ads during Sunday night's Super Bowl. 

Detroit was fully represented, with Ford (NYSE: F  ) , General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , and Chrysler all buying in, and a slew of import brands ran ads as well. Some of the ads were effective, some less so, but for the most part, there were no big surprises.

No big surprises, except for one: Maserati.

Maserati had the Super Bowl ad that nobody expected
Did you see the Maserati ad in the first quarter? A long meandering series of gritty scenes reminiscent of recent Chrysler commercials (with a very subtle twist: wind as a recurring theme), a young girl's voice talking about taking giants by surprise, and then... a surprise:

The ad for the new Maserati Ghibli sedan may have been a surprise, but it's time to get used to hearing about Maserati. 

The references to wind were nods to Maserati history -- the old Modena carmaker has long used wind as a theme. ("Ghibli" is an North African Arabic word for a particular Sahara wind.) But today, it's becoming clear that Maserati is rapidly being remade as a mainstream global luxury brand under the newly created Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NASDAQOTH: FIATY  ) , or FCA. 

Sunday's ad was Maserati's first big move to break into mainstream America's awareness -- and it might turn out to have been a good one. Kelley Blue Book said on Monday that it saw a surge of interest in Maserati on its site following the ad, a bigger surge than for any other brand. 

Why? Probably the Ghibli itself: With a base price of $66,900, the new midsize luxury sedan is the most affordable Maserati in years.

That, combined with the mystique of the Maserati name, is attracting a lot of attention as the work week begins. And that seems to all be part of FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne's plan.

Emerging signs suggest a big global push for Maserati
We don't yet have a clear view of where this is all going. Marchionne has said that FCA will reveal its new global premium-car strategy later this spring. But even before Sunday night, it was clear that Maserati will be a centerpiece.

Turning Maserati into a big global brand makes great business sense. A strong global luxury brand is an extremely good asset for a global automaker right now -- arguably a must-have. Strong profit margins, resilience during downturns, and a booming global luxury market (read: Chinese consumers love luxury cars) have made luxury cars a hot topic around the world.

The Ghibli's interior is striking, in the Italian style. How will it play with American luxury-car buyers? Photo credit: Maserati.

And here is the shining example: More than half of Volkswagen's (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY  ) very strong profits come from its Audi and Porsche brands. That example hasn't been lost on any automaker looking to boost its profit margins.

That's why General Motors is investing billions in a massive overhaul of its Cadillac brand. That's why Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY  ) is spending big to make its Infiniti brand a global player. That's why automakers from Toyota to Ford are looking to get more out of their luxury vehicle lineups and to expand them around the world.

And it's why FCA appears to be putting a big effort into Maserati. Its global sales are still tiny compared to the big German luxury brands -- just more than 15,000 vehicles last year -- but the profits are already rolling in: FCA said last week that Maserati earned 123 million euros in the fourth quarter, good for a very impressive 15.9% profit margin. 

If the Ghibli catches on, expect those earnings to soar over the next couple of years.

But will luxury buyers take Maserati seriously?
FCA's plans for selling Maserati to a skeptical luxury-car audience aren't fully clear yet. But the Super Bowl ad offered some hints, as did some other recent materials aimed at the U.S. market. 

Start with the new tag line: "The Absolute Opposite of Ordinary." Expect Maserati to argue -- as it did in another video last fall -- that other luxury offerings have become sedate, and a luxury car should be exciting. 

With striking styling and its famous engine howl, Maserati should have "exciting" well covered. And the brand has plenty of mystique: Maserati will have no trouble getting the attention of luxury-car buyers looking for the next hot thing.

But will it win over those buyers -- and will it hang onto them over time, as the German brands have done? Maybe this is the big question: Will Maserati buyers come back after a few years and buy another one?

That will depend on how good the cars are. Past Maseratis have not exactly been paragons of reliability. You can get away with that when you're selling exotic cars to wealthy buyers who have garages full of alternatives. But people who buy mainstream Audi and Lexus and Cadillac sedans have much more demanding expectations.

Can FCA build cars that deliver the Maserati experience along with the real-world reliability and livability that those buyers have come to expect? 

If this plan is going to work, it'll have to. Stay tuned.

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Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 11:13 PM, LouisTewl wrote:

    Nice to see you weigh in with a positive, JR- also, I saw where our Italian friend said that Alfa Romeo won't be coming stateside until 2015, BUT, that it also won't be coming in limited quantities, rather, "you'll be able to buy as many as you want."

    Perhaps. In any event, I still feel, at this juncture (Chrysler sales up 8%, Ford and GM d-d-down) that all roads lead to Rome/soon-to-be-Detroit.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 6:24 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    LouisTewl: Don't read much into January's sales numbers from Detroit. Ford was down because their fleet sales got hammered -- the weather delayed some big orders. That ground will get made up by the end of February.

    They want to take Maser sales to 50k a year by 2015 or 2016 -- the Ghibli and the upcoming SUV will be how they do it. That's still not a ton of cars. I'm guessing from the hints they're dropping, like the one you cited, that Alfa will be filling the premium volume role -- that is, they won't make a Maserati smaller than the Ghibli, they'll compete with the 3-Series and smaller with Alfas.

    From my viewpoint, the jury's out on whether they can get the consistent quality to the point where they can compete with the Germans (and increasingly, Cadillac and Infiniti and etc) long-term, around the world. But what they're doing makes very good sense, and the Ghibli and Q-Porte seem really nice, so I'm optimistic.

    Oh, and the Ghibli/Q-Porte platform will underpin the next-gen RWD Mopars (300/Charger/Challenger). That has potential too.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 11:04 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    One other note: We're going to be giving FCA a lot more coverage going forward, as it'll be a NYSE stock before long. I expect to be writing a lot more about the Maserati/Alfa premium strategy, among other things -- along with plenty on the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram side of the house -- over the next few years. We haven't done much with Chrysler because there hasn't been a lot of investor interest, but that will change. Stay tuned.

    John

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 11:20 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    Good article. Watching the ad during the game -- it took me a few minutes to register it was Maserati.

  • Report this Comment On February 05, 2014, at 4:51 AM, LouisTewl wrote:

    JR - re your assertion about Ford's lower sales being due to "reduced fleet sales" -perhaps you should tell your TMF co-writer Daniel Miller, because he didn't seem to see it that way.

    Glad you found out about the NYSE listing too, and that you will be writing more about this global powerhouse--it's never too late to write about a good stock.

  • Report this Comment On February 05, 2014, at 9:16 AM, TMFTwoCoins wrote:

    LouisTewl

    From my piece I believe you're referring to. "Total sales were affected by a 18% decline in fleet deliveries due to the company's planned reduction of rental sales".

    Also,

    "Ford did note that retail sales improved at a healthy clip in the West, which wasn't affected by winter weather. That should give investors reason to believe that the next couple of months will even out January's performance in the quarter."

    Daniel

  • Report this Comment On February 05, 2014, at 12:54 PM, LouisTewl wrote:

    Daniel/JR- Perhaps the reason for the confusion is because JR stated "Ford was down because their fleet sales got hammered -- the weather delayed some big orders."

    Daniel actually reported "Total sales were affected by a 18% decline in fleet deliveries due to the company's planned reduction of rental sales, according to a GM press release."

    Not quite the same thing.

    For their part, Chrysler's overall January U.S. sales increased 8% compared to last year for the company's best January sales figure since 2008. The increase was driven by its Jeep and Ram Truck brands which were up 38% and 22%, respectively. Parent Fiat also posted a 29% increase in sales, which was the brand's best January sales ever.

    To help you get started on your expanded coverage, JR, here's an article that might appeal to your vehicle-centric focus:

    http://wallstcheatsheet.com/stocks/rams-1500-ecodiesel-sets-...

    I hope this helps.

  • Report this Comment On February 05, 2014, at 12:58 PM, LouisTewl wrote:

    To further clarify-the stated fleet reduction was for GM, not Ford.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2014, at 12:54 PM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    To change the subject a bit, I just have to say, as a car enthusiast with an inclination toward midsize luxury high-performance sedans, the more I learn about the Ghibli, the more I think I need to test-drive one.

    John Rosevear

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