Have you had enough of conspicuous consumption? Mark 'Coolbear' Bursa travelled to Fiat's very own beach resort in Sardinia to hear about a new vehicle for Europe that eschews bling and comes with a striking new marketing slogan. A car for our times?

Corporate confidence seems to ooze from everything Fiat does these days - the company has clearly come a long way in the past few years since chairman Sergio Marchionne took the Italian automaker by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into the 21st century.

A sign of that confidence is the theme of the event we're attending - it's billed as the launch of a new car, but in reality, it's a repositioning of the Fiat brand - or at least a statement of the new position that the brand has been occupying since the start of the Marchionne revolution. And that's a bold and radical statement. In a world where bling is king, Fiat is heading in the opposite direction, aiming squarely at customers who've had enough of conspicuous consumption.

Fiat even has a new slogan to describe this position - "Status Simple". Clever, isn't it, inverting the Madison Avenue concept of the status symbol, coined fifty years ago by advertising guru Vince Packard. Status Simple is Fiatspeak for people who reject status symbols. And the car chosen to launch the concept is Qubo, a lifestyle-oriented compact MPV based on the new Fiorino van - the Turkish-built 'minicargo' that also exists as the Citroen Nemo and Peugeot Bipper.

But Qubo is a serious reinterpretation of the van - and it's just for Fiat. A tailgate replaces the van's doors; the interior has been upgraded and it has a flexible interior with clever foldable and removable seats. "Qubo is a car for people who don't have to show off to make a statement about themselves," says Lorenzo Sistino, Fiat Auto's CEO.

Sistino is one of the bright young things who Marchionne has tasked with taking the brand forward. Indeed, Marchionne is confident enough about product launches to stay away from the Qubo launch and leave it to Sistino. There's no sign of the legendary blue pullover at the launch, nor is the air cloudy with chainsmoked Marlboro smoke.

Not that he'd need his woolly pully today. Qubo's launch venue is another super-confident gesture - Fiat's own beach resort in Sardinia, Fiat Playa. It's a cool venue - and it's there for a reason. It's one of several informal Fiat venues designed to help the brand connect with younger thinking. During the summer season, it's a fully-functioning holiday resort, with beach bars, restaurants and a swimming pool (with the Fiat logo tiled into the bottom, of course). Guests can rent Fiat cars, and their views are fed back into the Fiat product planning department.

Out of season, it gives Fiat a relaxed venue for external events such as car launches, as well as for internal communications. It also allows outdoor presentations next to the Mediterranean shore, allowing execs a chance to indulge, quite literally, in blue-sky thinking.
 
And as the waves lap gently on the shore, Sistino is getting on with delivering the new corporate message. "Status Simple is the way the Fiat brand is," he says. "It defines the new brand values as a whole." For the moment, it's the slogan for Qubo - "Qubo is the most obvious evidence of these values," he adds. But he wouldn't rule out adopting it as Fiat's brand-wide marketing message - certainly it has more fans inside the company than the baffling "you are, we car" strapline used for the launch of the Cinquecento.

Sistino believes the new retro-styled 500 also fits the Status Simple concept, as do other models such as the Panda and the Linea world car. Roberto Giolino, head of Fiat Centro Stile, the company's main design centre, says Fiat achieves "more with less" - a philosophy that runs deep within the company. For example, it applies to its new, low-emissions multi-air gasoline engines that will launch next year and further improve Fiat's position as the European automaker with the lowest average CO2 emissions - 134.2g/km, more than 4g/km better than its nearest rival.

And here's the bottom line - Fiat is not just topping the green league - it's also outperforming its rivals in European sales growth this year. Sales were up 11 per cent year-on-year in the first half of 2008, and major gains have been made in many European markets, including France, Germany, Portugal and Denmark.

Even in Italy, where a few years ago Fiat sales seemed to be in a terminal tailspin, the brand is about to post its fourth consecutive year of growth. A low of 20.7 per cent market share was reached in 2005, but Fiat has gained ground again since then - so far this year Fiat has posted a share of 25.4 per cent. The Marchionne revolution is working, it seems.

One of the main reasons for the sales hike is the dealer network, says Sistino. "We have added 100 new dealers in Europe so far this year, and we will add a further 80 by the end of the year." Indeed, the network has grown by 25 percent in the past four years to around 1,500 outlets. "Dealer recruitment has been an enormous effort, especially outside Italy," he adds.

Mark 'Coolbear' Bursa