Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Global 2012: Leonardo DiCaprio partners with Fisker Automotive

leonardo-dicaprioleonardo-dicaprio (Photo credit: AN HONORABLE GERMAN)
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio has become an equity investor in and a brand ambassador for Fisker Automotive, the Anaheim, Calif.-based startup that sells the Karma plug-in hybrid.

Having a Hollywood star help burnish the corporate image couldn’t come at a better time. Fisker Automotive recently expanded a recall of its $103,000 Karma, due to incorrectly positioned hose clamps that could potentially cause a fire. The recall now affects more than 250 of these luxury vehicles, which is roughly 25 percent of the total number sold. The company also is under political fire over a loan it received through the U.S. Department of Energy.

But DiCaprio, a three-time Oscar nominee known for films such as “Inception” (2010), “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), and “Titanic” (1997), is a longtime believer in Fisker Automotive. He took delivery of the first Karma to roll off the production line in July 2011.

“DiCaprio will work closely with marketing and promotional initiatives to bring attention to sustainability and environmental issues around the world,” Fisker Automotive said in a press release. “In turn, Fisker will support the work of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.”

Fisker Automotive did not release details on exactly what role DiCaprio will play in the company’s marketing strategy. But the fact that the new partnership will play up sustainability—which is a broader theme than just saving fuel by driving a Karma—implies that DiCaprio’s role is different than that of a typical spokesman who helps to sell more cars.

Neither did Fisker Automotive specify how much DiCaprio invested in the company, nor how it will be involved with DiCaprio’s foundation, which he created in 1998 to draw attention to environmental issues such as wildlife protection and climate change.

Signing up DiCaprio as a brand ambassador makes sense, given Fisker Automotive’s commitment to environmental responsibility—a point that is mentioned in its press release. Besides manufacturing cars that can help reduce fuel consumption and emissions, the company also uses low-impact technology and renewable materials, such as interior trim made from reclaimed wood and “Diamond Dust” paint that utilizes flakes of recycled glass.

Fisker Automotive has taken several steps to raise its profile lately and counter an onslaught of negative publicity. The company launched its first major advertising campaign in June with a multi-page spread in the Wall Street Journal that both celebrated its accomplishments and acknowledged the challenges it has faced as an innovator in the auto industry.

In addition, co-founder Barney Koehler is transitioning from head of operations to chief business development officer. He will pursue strategic partnerships to share Fisker Automotive technology and create manufacturing alliances.

The change in his role, announced on Tuesday, suggests that the company is looking to bolster its business by diversifying beyond production of the Karma and other hybrid cars it has in the pipeline.

Fisker Automotive said in May it had delivered 1,000 Karmas to customers globally since the plug-in hybrid went on sale. The company also said it had generated $100 million in revenue in the four months ending April 30 and raised $174 million in private equity funding during that same time period, bringing total funding to $1 billion since the company’s founding in 2007. It has 80 independent retail locations in Canada, Europe and the United States, and is about to start selling its cars in China and the Middle East.

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