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.
And here is the shining example: More than half of Volkswagen's (NASDAQOTH:VWAGY) 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.