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Does Chrysler Follow Through on Community Reinvestment?

Image courtesy Motortrend

By Melissa J. Anderson

Did you catch Chrysler‘s two-minute television commercial during the Superbowl? According to the gravelly-voiced commercial announcer, the Detroit automaker knows luxury because “it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” He explains that despite sustaining significant hardship over the past decades, the city (and presumably its automakers) is full of know-how and spirit. Detroit may seem to be going through tough times, but it’s still full of energy. “When it comes to luxury it’s as much about where its from as who its for,” the announcer says. Chrysler’s automobiles are manufactured in the Motor City, a town renowned for its expertise in motor vehicles.

The commercial is as much an exercise in branding as it is in community reinvestment. The luxury automobile market has been largely overtaken by international manufacturers like Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Toyota. Chrysler is an underdog when it comes to the luxury market, and the company knows it – people “don’t know what we’re capable of,” says the commercial’s narrator. The same, we can gather, goes for Detroit.

The spot is fantastic – and it drives home the fact that Detroit isn’t down for the count. But while the commercial emphasizes a link between Chrysler and Detroit, it makes us wonder, how far does the automobile company go in supporting the city’s renewal? How much does the company invest in Detroit’s citizens? And how much does the company invest in its own employees?

Focus on Diversity

Before delving into how “Detroit” Chrysler really is, it’s worthwhile to note that the company has managed surprisingly strong work in the diversity arena, especially for a company in the manufacturing industry. For example, Chrysler has been awarded the top score on the Human Right’s Campaign‘s Corporate Equality Index five times, most recently in October.

The company’s Director of Talent Acquisition, Global Diversity, Training, and Compliance, Lisa J. Wicker, said, “Chrysler is committed to an inclusive culture.” She continued, “Our employees feel that they can contribute fully to the success of our Company because we’ve created an inclusive business environment in which all people and ideas are welcome and respected.”

Chrysler has also been included on Working Mother‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list twelve times, and just last year, was named one of Hispanic Business magazine’s Diversity Elite 60.

The company’s CEO Sergio Marchionne is also a strong backer of creating an inclusive workplace culture, and is the executive sponsor of the company’s Global Diversity Council. He is quoted as having said, “Culture is the fabric that holds organizations together. It is not just an ingredient for success; it is the essence of success itself.”

At a time when the US’s largest automakers are taking a hit both in the press and financially, and in many industries diversity initiatives are being scaled back due to funding cuts, it’s terrific to see a CEO who understands the strategic importance of diversity. This means a lot in terms of a company’s support for its workforce.

Judging from the new commercial, the company is basing its brand on its Detroit roots – its people. In doing so, Chrysler is speaking just as much to its consumers as it is to its workforce. And, as researchers have noted, if a company don’t follow through on its plans and promises when speaking to its workforce, it’s in for trouble.

Investing in Detroit? Sort of.

TriplePundit has an excellent analysis of Chrysler’s presence in Detroit. First, writer Nick Aster explained, the Fox Theater, wherein Eminem meets a choir at the end of the ad, was actually revitalized by the Little Caesar’s Pizza founder Michael Illich. Little Caesar’s headquarters are also nearby, further underscoring the company’s commitment to urban renewal.

Chrysler, on the other hand, is based outside the city, in the suburbs, which have largely avoided the level of hardship the city has sustained. Aster suggests that the company move back to the city itself. He writes:

“Wishful thinking perhaps, but taking bold pride in Detroit ought to manifest in a movement to invest into the real soul of the city, beyond the strip mall landscape that the company now occupies, and beyond inspiring TV ad spots. GM, for example, moved to the Renaissance center in the 1980s while Chrysler stayed put.”

The company stops short of moving its headquarters to Detroit proper, and this may in fact be one of the reasons the company has been included on the Working Mother list – an office closer to home, and closer to the place where their children attend school, is a big perk for moms. Chrysler also contributes a significant amount of money to urban revitalization programs in Detroit. For example, the Chrysler Foundation’s “Good Neighbor, Good Citizen” program provides funding for community groups in the areas around its offices and plants. The Foundation has also donated money to the Detroit Science Center and the Michigan Ballet Theater and other buildings and groups in the area.

Keeping corporate offices outside the city of Detroit while simultaneously emphasizing Chrysler’s commitment to the city may seem disingenuous, but if a suburban location is what employees want and need, it’s a wise move.

If, on the other hand, Chrysler is just banking on the Detroit brand (and using the Detroit people as a marketing tool) the company will see an employee exodus as other US automakers begin to make a comeback. But given the company’s history of support of the city and its people, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

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