CMO interview: Citroen’s global brand chief on modern marketing

We chat with the global marketing chief of iconic French car manufacturing brand, Citreon about its 100-year celebrations and creative approach

Arnaud Belloni
Arnaud Belloni

Magnify, impact and storytelling – these three words sum up the method behind the creative ‘madness’ of Citroen’s global chief marketing officer, Arnaud Belloni’s marketing strategy.

It’s a three-pronged approach born out of 28 years’ experience as a marketer, including 22 years with automotive brands such as Renault, Volkswagen, Fiat Chrysler, Alfa Romeo and now Citroen. And it’s one that’s come particularly in handy over the past four years as Belloni worked to revitalise the iconic French automotive brand with global resonance and celebrate 100 years in business this year.

“Everything we do is serving to magnify the brand, tell the story of the brand and our products and drive impact,” he tells CMO. “Work at Citroen checks all three boxes. If it doesn’t, we kill the idea. I don’t just do a campaign just to get impact – that’s not storytelling or magnifying anything. And it’s a strict process I’ve educated everyone in the business to follow.”

Complementing this is a commitment to embracing both Citroen’s heritage and pop culture roots, as well as the latest consumer, industry and technological trends. This was evident in Citroen’s centenary brand work and 2019 go-to-market strategy.

As Belloni points out, Citroen is the most collected brand in the automotive industry. Yet when he joined the group in 2015, marketing was not capitalising on such heritage.

“It was just history for a few – not everyone. That was a mistake,” he says. “Citroen is a true iconic brand. When the Americans are doing a movie about Mars attacking, they destroy Paris and there’s a Citroen. When Spielberg made the movie, Munich, the guy is driving our car.

“We are part of the world and French culture. It’s mandatory for us to take care of our heritage and keep it cool. That’s our DNA.”

So three years before the centenary, Belloni created a virtual museum in French and English, Citroen Origins, showcasing the brand’s top 70 cars over the last 100 years, from racing to concept and passenger vehicles. The platform allows consumers to go inside and outside the cars, listen to the horn or door closing, view historic catalogues and more. Belloni describes it as “the bible for car lovers”.

Credit: Citroen


The centenary go-to-market strategy, meanwhile, took its cues from the brand claim, ‘Inspired by you’, which Belloni interprets as inspired by history and iconic dimensions, the present, and the future.

“We didn’t want the centenary to be the centenary of death or those 80-plus, I wanted something inspired by cool,” he continues.

Experiential events have dominated the marketing program and involved Citroen car collectors globally, from Paris to Goodwood in the UK, Dieme in western France and Motorclassica in Australia. The milestone ‘Gathering of the century’ three-day event in France saw 5000 cars from everywhere in the world including Australia, onsite for a major exhibition, with 10,000 collectors and 60,000 people participating across two stadiums.

Another free car display in Paris was attended by 40,000, while a photo exhibition, ‘The world inspired by Citroen’, featured images from seven leading photographers reflecting on the brand’s cultural role. There was also a book retracing 100 years of Citroen advertising, along with a ‘Made with icons’ art sculpture.  

With customers and followers now highly active through social networks, Citroen also launched a major digital-based initiative showcasing fans with a story to tell around the brand. The ‘Citroen Generations’ 10-part series featuring super fans including an advertising creative director in Los Angeles, a carpentry family in Belgium, fourth generation Slovenian 2CV owner, Luka Stare, and French gardener, Jean-Paul Lelievre, who has 24 H-Type Citroen trucks.

“We told true stories about true people,” Belloni says.  

It wasn’t all history-focused either. Citroen’s 100-year program involved showing the future of automotive via two concept cars. The latest Ami One concept is Citroen’s vision for the future of urban mobility, while the 19_19 is a new vision for longhaul, autonomous, electric vehicles.

In all, 150 activities have been conducted in the year to date, reaching 260 million people, chalking up 46 million views including 29 million views on TV, and ensuring brand awareness in market reached 86 per cent.

The majority of international centenary activity took place from January to September 2019. From September to December, local markets added their local flavour to the work.

“This is about amplifying the things we have produced globally by bringing it to the local market,” Belloni says. “Importantly, the centenary has been thought out, implemented and driven by us. We drove it because otherwise we wouldn’t have controlled it. That’s the danger with a heritage as big as Citroen’s – if you do not control it, very quickly you can’t manage it. Cult, iconic brands drive their heritage.”  

When Belloni joined the business, 60 per cent of creativity was done out of headquarters and there was no coherence.

“The brand was in a way discounted 10 months out of 12, and there was no storytelling,” he says.

Measuring success

Through all his work, Belloni’s measurement approach has been driven by the combination of hard sales and creative success. His commitment to creative is such that he was once quoted in the UK’s Marketing Week magazine as saying: “If our job is just metrics and sales, we are not marketers anymore”.

“It was quite obvious when I entered the company after 11 years of Fiat-Chrysler-Jeep, which was completely obsessed by metrics, that we need to be very careful. I said to our CEO, the difference is made by brands that are really standing out,” Belloni says.  

“I was born in a context where I’ve seen Nike grow up, and Apple growing. From this, my advice to our CEO was to never compromise on creativity and to go back to the roots of our business.”

Belloni takes inspiration from 1980s advertising icon, Jacques Seguela, who spearheaded work for Citroen. His commitment to creativity sees him spending five hours per week reviewing creativity to ensure a world-view exists for the brand across channels and teams.

“Others will obsess about metrics. But metrics and creativity aren’t the same thing, even if the chicken comes from the eggs and the eggs make the chicken,” he says. “If my creativity is good, I don’t need to pre-test it. If it’s good, I don’t need to post-test it, I’ll sell cars. And if it is good, I’ll make a difference very quickly.”   

In addition, Belloni personally reviews all briefs given to agencies and insists on simple briefs.

“It could be one sentence, such as: ‘The best seat in a Citroen is the middle seat in the rear as the back seats are as wide as the rest of the seats in the car’. That could be the brief for our family TVC… So quality of the brief, simplifying and not compromising, is key,” he says.

A third pillar has been working with world-class agencies. “When I took the job I had a French agency. I now have BETC [the traction agency, part of Havas Worldwide] one of the biggest, Cannes winners for creative with an international team and creatives that go all over the world,” he says.

“I also need to have the best strategy and planning, and a partner that’s experimental and working for brands known everywhere, such as Evian or Lacoste. Having the best creative and the best strategy are two dimensions of the same picture.”

Up next: What Citroen is doing to listen to customers, plus how the brand is coping with wholesale disruption

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