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Chrysler’s Disciplined “Pizzazz”

Will a dose of fizz help Daimler-Chrysler’s image — and its car sales?

April 10, 2002

Will a dose of fizz help Daimler-Chrysler's image — and its car sales?

Dr. Zetsche had been dispatched by the U.S. just last year by the carmaker’s German parent, Daimler-Chrysler, to stem a financial hemorrhage which amounted to $2 billion in 2001.

Arriving in Detroit from Dusseldorf in 2001, Dr. Zetsche and his team weren’t content with merely sacking a fifth of Chrysler’s 126,000-strong workforce or slashing costs. The company needed to improve its image among consumers and sell more cars. This called for a comprehensive strategy, which Mr. Zetsche calls “disciplined pizzazz.”

The linguistic origins of “pizzazz” are elusive — but the word commonly denotes an abundance of style and energy. It’s the kind of word favored by manufacturers of soft drinks such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi, because it mimics the trademark “fizz” of their cola.

In a similar way, Dr. Zetsche’s aim is put some fizz back into Chrysler — as if the car maker was manufacturing soft drinks and not automobiles.

Dr. Zetsche devoted a large portion of his speech to discussing his strategy. As long as he talked about discipline, he was on solid ground. Discipline, after all, is a traditional German virtue, and Dr. Zetsche had no problem discussing cost-cutting and quality improvement.

But though it may be hip for a German to talk about “pizzazz,” it can backfire. On this particular day, Dr. Zetsche’s musing about pizzazz caused problems for him — and eventually his U.S. audience.

You see, Dr. Zetsche is German and his way of saying “pizzazz” was by substituting his z’s with s’s. As in “pizzazz is all about emotions.” Or “pizzazz is introducing 11 new models over the next two years.”

After a while, furtive smiles began to appear on the faces of seasoned Washington reporters and lobbyists. But it wasn’t about the accent — or not only about the accent. “Disciplined pizzazz” is a corny concept — and an awkward linguistic construct. Dr. Zetsche’s accent merely advertised its inherent absurdity — and perhaps suggested something profound about the Daimler-Chrysler merger.

On paper, the merger between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler looked a perfect deal. It married top-notch German engineering to American creativity and market access — complemented by the manufacturing expertise and design savvy of the Japanese partner Mitsubishi. In reality, however, it proved a troubled union tarnishing Mercedes’ reputation, producing huge losses at Chrysler — and destroying shareholder value.

Dr. Zetsche had a great image for the potential of U.S.-German cooperation. He observed that if the medals won by American and German athletes at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics were added together, they would surpass those of all other countries combined.

Unfortunately, this assertion proves as untrue as his CEO’s earlier statement that DaimlerChrysler would be a “marriage made in heaven.” But, when trying to assimilate one entity into the other, the result may turn out as silly as “disciplined pizzazz” — regardless of how it is pronounced.