FIAT 500: Has the product become its own brand?

FIAT 500: Has the product become its own brand?

Not a day goes by without the launch of a new car model. Recently, a specific detail of an updated vehicle has drawn my attention: its front emblem. Whereas virtually every vehicle’s nose features the brand logo, complemented by the model name at the back, this car proudly shows the latter on its grille: 500. These three digits are a statement — and a look at the tailgate reveals it’s one by FIAT. Now, contrary to the car’s predecessors, why does this primary badge show the type, not the brand?

Willem Haen
Willem Haen
Brand Engagement Lead

Brands excite me. Driven by curiosity, I dive into particularly exciting ones once in a while. With each article, I aim to highlight interesting aspects of a brand — be it its remarkable essence, unique identity, creative expression, or customer experience. Would you like to discuss this post or bring up another exciting brand to focus on next time? Just drop me a line on LinkedIn. I'm happy to hear from you.

A logical answer that comes to my mind is that 500 is the brand. After all, the 500 has made it into a LEGO set, has its own Italian stamp, and starred in the Pixar movie “Cars”. This would mean that once just a number in the FIAT portfolio, the model got its unique identity over time, and, at some point, its mother brand has given it the right to exist as a somewhat independent brand.

The 500 has made it into a LEGO set, has its own Italian stamp, and starred in a Pixar movie — so it might be a brand indeed.

Now, is 500 a brand? For that, it needs to be way more than a vehicle. Many should have a clear picture based on unique characteristics. When this image is positive, the 500 has made it into people’s hearts, making it even a beloved brand. The FIAT 500 has a long history, which is a good starting point. Getting a better understanding of the evolution of the identity of this car (from FIAT’s perspective), the development of its image (from the market perspective), and the interaction between the two will certainly provide answers. Furthermore, a dedicated community around this model is not only a statement by itself but also an opportunity to compare perceptions of loyal owners and other people out there. As brand extensions and co-branding initiatives need the existence of a brand in the first place, I’ll take a look at these, too.

Let’s explore the 500.

A long history

The birth of an icon

To better understand why three digits can become so meaningful, I put the 500 on a timeline first.

All FIAT 500s on a timeline

500 Topolino
Only a few of us are aware that today’s 500 doesn’t actually originate from the tiny “Cinquecento” (Italian for “five hundred”) — the iconic car that dominated the Italian street view, particularly in cities, for many decades and still makes the hearts of many oldtimer enthusiasts beat faster today. No, it all started way earlier, in the 1930s. The vision of Giovanni Agnelli, founder of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, FIAT, got inspired by a visit to the Ford factory: to build a vehicle that the average Italian could afford. Contrary to many European brands that manufactured large and powerful cars that were priced accordingly, FIAT introduced the 500, an exceptionally small and simple car. It was no surprise that, soon after its 1936 launch, people renamed it “Topolino,” meaning “little mouse” in Italian. The Topolino was affordable and economical. That made the first 500 extremely popular, and by the end of its production in 1955, over half a million units had been sold — a considerable number back then.

Nuova 500
Riding the wave of this success and focusing on the era’s other European “people’s cars,” like the Volkswagen Beetle, FIAT developed the model’s successor, the 600. A little later, this model served as a blueprint for the more promising “Nuova 500” (New 500), referred to as the first generation, launched in 1957. Again, it was all about affordability through minimalism: The Nuova 500 was sufficient in terms of space and speed, but nothing more than that. The Cinquecento was less than three meters long, powered by a tiny two-cylinder engine, and exceptionally inexpensive. (It’s worth mentioning that in 1959, the creator of this legendary car, Dante Giacosa, received the Compasso d’Oro industrial design prize, which had never been given to a car designer before.) Despite its size, people appreciated the practicality of the 500, and sales increased throughout Europe. Consequently, the model — in multiple versions, partly even manufactured by other companies — was sold for 18 years. Because of the large number of vehicles sold and its lasting popularity, the 500 stayed on the (mostly Italian) roads throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Decades later, the iconic model even made it to the MoMA in New York.

The humble Fiat 500 embodies many of the principles that guided mid-century modern design: its appearance clearly expresses its function, it made a logical and economical use of materials, and it was modestly priced and thus widely accessible. The development of cheap, reliable cars such as this in the postwar period was instrumental in knitting together the formerly disparate nations of Europe and fostering a freedom of movement throughout the continent.

The Museum of Modern Art, 2017

Remarkably, the name “Cinquecento” popped up between 1991 and 1999 again, when FIAT manufactured a small and basic car that in no other way resembled the original 500.

New 500
The real revival of the 500 took place in 2007, five decades after the Nuova 500’s launch. The two-seater Smart Fortwo had become a popular city car, particularly in Italy, and FIAT wanted to regain its small-vehicle crown. Remakes of iconic vehicles, such as the New Beetle (1997) and the MINI (2001), had been successful, so going retro with the new 500 was no more than a logical step for FIAT. The car’s design was heavily inspired by its predecessor yet met all modern standards. Where the original 500 had been appreciated for mostly practical and economic reasons, the new 500 simply conquered many hearts because of its styling. To date, the 500 (referred to as the second generation) has been sold over 3 million times in more than 100 countries worldwide and has won more than 40 major awards, including the Compasso d’Oro industrial design award its predecessor got decades before.

The 500 is an icon of Italian style that has never gone out of fashion. Over the decades, it has won over countless fans all round the world, courtesy of its unmistakable traits and strong character.

Roberto Giolito – Head of Stellantis Heritage, Designer of the FIAT 500 (2007)

FIAT introduced an all-new generation of its 500 in 2020. Going with the time, the model didn’t just get a major makeover but also became fully electric. Its high quality and large range of contemporary features give it a rather high price tag and make it a serious contender for established premium automotive brands that haven’t been too worried about FIAT so far. The vehicle carries not only a rich tradition of design but also extraordinary sales figures. (The model was ranked number 5 in 2022 German sales.)

FIAT 500 distinctive design principles

A unique identity

All generations of the FIAT 500 model, stretching from 1936 to today, have one thing in common: great commercial success. Initially, its functional benefits made this model highly popular, but emotion started to play an increasingly important role over time. For a better understanding of what has happened in people’s minds and hearts, I’ll take a closer look at the evolution of the identity of the FIAT 500 — as created and communicated by FIAT. To keep things simple, I focus on the so-called first generation (1957–1975) and the second/third generations (2007 to today), as these models show the most resemblance and resonance.

The humble car for everyone

Despite several attempts to get in touch with Stellantis, the automotive corporation FIAT belongs to nowadays, I couldn’t get any input from the mother brand. However, a brand’s identity and position can also be extracted from its communications, so I decided to use a small selection of advertisements and brochures instead. These publications show the story that FIAT tells about its 500 and, thus, reveal the car’s identity.

Technological success, economic progress. With the new 500, Fiat has achieved further important progress regarding the small, ultra-utilitarian, and economical car: technical advancement in design and construction, as well as progress in socio-economic terms by, more and more, being a car for everyone. The new 500 is a two-seater but has comfortable space in the back. Very modern are the vehicle characteristics and performance. It’s a great success — in Italy and abroad — an established automotive name of FIAT, and of Italy: the “500” that began the development of the small utility car in 1936. From “500” to “new 500”.

Print ad, Italy

This ad, one of the very first ones, introduced the all-new 500 to the Italian public in 1957. The headline showed that FIAT’s narrative focus was on engineering and economics. The latter was directly linked to the model’s purpose of “being a car for everyone.” In the body text, the 500’s small size and practicality — a remarkable combination, I think — were emphasized. It’s worth mentioning that FIAT referred to the model’s predecessor to demonstrate its great international success. After all, the new 500 had only just been launched. Visually, the new 500 didn’t have much in common with the Topolino, but FIAT wanted to underline that they share a similar DNA.

Print ad, United States

This US American print ad of the launch year ticks the same boxes: FIAT started to tell about 500’s success so far and referred to the model’s heritage. Probably because cars were supposed to be large in the United States, FIAT didn’t explicitly mention the size and highlighted the advantages of this characteristic — handling and economics — instead. Again, the engineering aspect was not forgotten. A remarkable extra was the fact that the product seemed to target first-time car buyers and car owners who considered purchasing a second one.

In the last year of the first generation of the 500, we see that FIAT still mentioned the great success — this time, referring to the car itself instead of its predecessor. Again, engineering and economics were emphasized. The former was now explicitly linked to proven reliability; the latter was about being inexpensive to purchase and use. One factor, however, was entirely new: affection. With statements like “You can’t help liking a FIAT,” the company now gave desirability a prominent place in its communications.

Brochure, United States

We can see that, over nearly two decades, the car had become a beloved vehicle, and I think FIAT was well aware of that.

Your no-frills lifestyle brand

Now, when we jump to the second-generation 500 (2007–2020), we see a major difference in messaging, for instance, in this 2012 brochure. This time, FIAT used the highest praise to update people on the car’s status: “The icon. The legend. The FIAT 500.” Not exaggerated, if you ask me, because FIAT was backed by a great and comprehensive track record. The message now spoke way more to the heart than to the head. Design got more attention than engineering, which is in line with today’s reputation of the Italian automotive industry at large. Specifically, simplicity — a potential remnant of the small size that the 500 once had — was highlighted in this regard.

Brochure, United States

The visuals now had a rather emotional touch, and with highlights like individualism, exploration, and freedom, the content had become more purpose-driven. On top, instead of using the car’s long history to praise its reliability, FIAT now chose an emotional approach with phrases like “a catalyst for profound change” and “a beacon of hope for millions” when talking about the 500’s heritage.

A few years later, FIAT added fun to the equation and referred to the 500 as “the definition of happy.” Italian design, broken down into great styling and beautiful simplicity, was covered again, and the emphasis on individualism and personalization remained.

Print ad, United States

Cult that changes culture.
How does something become cult? By changing the spirit of the times, just as the Fiat 500 has done from the start. It’s more than a car — a synonym for style and light-heartedness. An icon that’s now inspiring people in a whole new way by going fully electric. Because beauty can change the world.

Inspiring change since 1957.
“The first generation gave people mobility and freedom. The second turned city cars into something cool. It’s time again for the Fiat 500 to inspire change. To serve a higher purpose.” — Olivier François, President FIAT Brand Global

Brochure, Germany

The third generation 500 is larger, more sophisticated, and fully electric. Here, FIAT simply presents the ability of the Cinquecento to “change the spirit of the times” — somewhat exaggerated, if you ask me — as the way to get people to switch to electric driving. A quote by FIAT’s president, Olivier François, even includes the words “higher purpose” to reaffirm this objective. He also mentions that the 500 has “turned into something cool,” and in the brochure text, “beauty” is explicitly mentioned as the driving force behind the paradigm shift. The FIAT 500 might not have much power in terms of driving performance, but it does have the power to change things.

The 500 brand identity over time

The 500 was once introduced as a car with practical benefits that were unique at the time. Its modesty in terms of size and simplicity made it a vehicle that the average Italian was able to afford. Gradually, product characteristics initially meant to be functional started to trigger emotions, eventually making the 500 an iconic brand that people love. (One great example is the 500’s fabric sunroof: It was created to save material and weight for better economics. Today, it’s seen as an expression of freedom and fun.) FIAT has actively contributed to this shift. I think, initially, the manufacturer has identified a need for and shown excellence in design.

Over time, FIAT was probably surprised by its product’s success, closely followed up on the reasons for this, and anticipated accordingly. Whereas the model was once introduced to the world as a practical, technically advanced vehicle for the collective, it’s now positioned as a stylish, fun car that exudes individuality. Its rich heritage is always referred to — in communications and the product itself.

A subtle nod to the 500's roots

A strong image

We have seen that FIAT has adjusted the communicated identity of its 500 model over time. I’d claim this has been because the company wanted to keep its product relevant throughout the decades and gradually realized that the 500 was getting not only into people’s minds but also their hearts. Now, let’s take a look at these thoughts and feelings. How can they be described today? Does the image of the original 500 differ from the picture people have of the current model? I’ll look at two groups — FIAT 500 oldtimer owners and students — to examine different perspectives and find answers.

Two products, one brand?

The cute little car that makes people smile

Through an online survey I sent out to FIAT 500 oldtimer clubs in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, I tried to look at the FIAT 500 through “historical eyes” first. The members’ focus naturally is on the first generation 500, and from that perspective, they look at the current 500 situation.

When asking them what is so special about the FIAT 500 — which characteristics make it unique — most owners say that it makes people smile and that it’s tiny and cute. These answers are rather emotional. Affordability only comes third; design and heritage are hardly mentioned. Remarkably, the car’s engineering is now praised for being uncomplicated instead of advanced, as it was back in the day.
When asking for the oldtimer owners’ opinion about the current version of the Cinquecento, the majority thinks it has the same spirit — or even DNA.

The cute little car that offers freedom and independence

For a little more distance to the FIAT 500, I conducted a small workshop with a group of students who don’t own a FIAT 500 (or any car) at all. Being of a younger generation than the typical oldtimer enthusiast, this group tends to think of the current 500 model(s) first. When asking them a similar question — What is so special about the FIAT 500? — the answers show a different picture. “Freedom and independence” are in the lead, followed by “tiny and cute.” Remarkable is the weight that’s given to nostalgia, meaning affection for a period in the past, especially when realizing that that period was before the respondents were born. Apparently, FIAT achieved appreciation for historical meaning by people without a direct connection to its early days.

A similar image appears when asking them for their view on the original 500. Only “nostalgia” gets a lower rating — probably because that model doesn’t come with a wink to a predecessor, nor has that car had a place in the students’ personal lives. The classic 500 seems to strengthen the feeling of “la dolce vita,” the Italian way of enjoying life. FIAT is aware of this and uses this in a campaign for the new 500.

Owners of the original 500 and people for whom the current 500 comes to mind first agree that it’s a tiny and cute car. To a lesser extent, they consider it an uncomplicated product. There is also another major difference: For oldtimer fans, it’s all about putting a smile on people’s faces. For them, the car delivers joy to everyone — not just the driver. This is also how most of them look at the new FIAT 500. The younger generation, however, talks about that car in terms of freedom and independence. It stands for happiness on a more individual level. They project this interpretation onto the classic 500, too. Young adults see the original 500 as the old version of the current one, which underlines an individual lifestyle with a nostalgic touch. Oldtimer owners see the current 500 as the new version of the original one, which humbly invites everyone to share the fun. Although the inputs were given in a contemporary setting, I think it’s interesting to spot some of the good old “humble car for everyone” versus “your no-frills lifestyle brand” discussions of today again.

Young adults see the original 500 as the old version of the current one, which underlines an individual lifestyle with a nostalgic touch. Oldtimer owners see the current 500 as the new version of the original one, which humbly invites everyone to share the fun.

A passionate community

Committed drivers keep the story alive

The ultimate tribute to a brand is a community of people who are emotionally connected to it. Sharing similar values and beliefs creates a sense of belonging, which can make people loyal to a brand and band together. The most desirable form of such a brand community is one that has grown organically instead of being launched and curated by a company. As for FIAT 500, there is no centralized documentation, so it’s difficult to say how many FIAT 500 clubs are out there. For sure, it’s a considerable number, particularly in Europe. Hundreds of national and local clubs keep the 500 story alive (from the market side) alongside the new FIAT 500 products (from the company side).
According to my survey, almost a fifth of first-generation FIAT 500 owners possess a second- or third-generation 500. That’s quite a high number, but this group of fans certainly helps get others into a Cinquecento, too. Nowadays, many people want a car that’s a means of self-expression and a reliable vehicle for everyday use — this car is both: The community promotes the former; FIAT takes care of the latter.

Keeping the 500 story alive

FIAT initiatives strengthen the connection

Mother brand FIAT does more than just manufacture a contemporary version of its legendary 500: It also keeps the car’s story alive by bringing people together. Today, the old and new 500 models are connected by presenting them to the world as one brand. FIAT gives exposure to brand community events, has a heritage website, and recently opened a dedicated exhibition space in Turin (with physical and digital access) named Casa 500.

Much more than a car museum, Casa 500 is a journey into the heart of Italy, its culture, and history. A space to demonstrate how our 500 isn’t just made in Italy but made of Italy.

Stellantis Italy

Growing the brand

From brand extensions to undistracted focus

Once the company realized that the 500 can be considered its own brand, it started to treat it that way. After the 2007 relaunch, FIAT even introduced brand extensions: With the addition of the 500L minivan (2012) and the 500X mini SUV (2014), 500 became a product family that made up half of the FIAT car portfolio. I think this hasn’t been a good idea from the brand’s point of view. As so often, trying to become more can result in a loss of sharpness. The larger 500 models share some visual elements with the original but being less stylish and not having the typical 500 silhouette blurred the iconic 500 brand.

The FIAT 500 extended product family

Almost two-thirds of the FIAT community respondents agree with me that these added models have nothing to do with the FIAT 500; only 10% think that they have the same DNA. The 500L had little success and was discontinued by the end of 2022. It was reported that its brother, the 500X, will not be replaced once it phases out.

Undoubtedly, long-lasting success such as that of the core 500 model is something many automotive companies can only dream of. FIAT has learned that one can’t simply copy the Cinquecento magic to other products, so it has decided to pay more attention to the 500 in terms of product development and marketing. This has boosted sales even more. Today, at a price that’s way higher than any of its competitors — or aren’t there any, because this is an all-new category? — almost two out of three FIAT cars sold in Europe are a 500. (This number isn’t boosted by Italian sales figures. As a matter of fact, in its homeland, the Panda model is way more popular.)

This car demonstrates that FIAT can successfully sell expensive cars if they have personality and are properly positioned and built. The problem is that this formula can’t be replicated in other segments. Simply because the secret of the success of the 500 relies on its small size and its heritage.

Felipe Munoz – FIAT Group World

Teaming up with other Italian icons

In a short time, some special editions of the current FIAT 500 have been developed already. Italian lifestyle brands — or better said: other Italian lifestyle brands — like Bvlgari, Kartell, and Giorgio Armani, have co-branded with the 500e, not with FIAT. Its predecessor had been flirting with other names from Italy, such as Riva, Diesel, and Gucci.

Cobranding with Italian lifestyle brands

Furthermore, the vehicle has not only been “hosting” other brands, but the 500 also starred in Italian product items itself, such as the Bialetti coffee maker, Majani chocolate, and a Smeg mini refrigerator. Last but not least, umbrella brand FIAT has understood the power of personal branding and has selected famous people who could promote the car. One of the 500e models is a special edition, by Andrea Bocelli, highlighting the sonic experience. For a European 500 brand campaign, Leonardo DiCaprio — an Italian name, at least — could be signed on.

A brand it is

500 lives in people’s hearts, so it’s a brand. It has developed its own unique identity, has an iconic image in the market, and acts as a standalone not connected to the FIAT brand. 500 is an icon with a long history and a promising future.

The evolving positioning by FIAT has shown us that a modest car that was once introduced as a practical vehicle affordable for everyone has become a minimalist lifestyle brand that’s meaningful for the individual. Its modesty in size and style has made the 500 a cute car people love. Customers who relate to the first generation think the 500 is special for its ability to put a smile on people’s faces; others pay the most attention to the current model(s) and appreciate the feeling of freedom and nostalgia. A large community of loyal Cinquecento drivers promote the brand and help keep the story alive, even through the new models. Initiatives by FIAT support this. Initial attempts to extend the brand by adding new products, followed by efforts to increase brand focus, show that FIAT is fully aware that the 500 brand has opportunities. Impactful collaborations with established brands in other categories and ambassadorships by famous personalities only confirm this.

Fiat is the 500, no other car. I have a very clear plan to not do anything else than the 500.

Olivier François — President FIAT Brand Global

Now, what does this mean for FIAT? Well, as a company, the success of the 500 can only be embraced. But as a brand, 500 — once nothing more than a FIAT model — is about to outgrow its own mother brand. Visualizing the stages of the brand architecture helps to see what has happened and where we’re now.

Whatever will happen next, the 500 has earned its place in the elite of numerical brands, joining N°5, 911, 501, 007, and 747.

500 model names vary depending on the market. For consistency, I have stuck to one naming convention throughout this article.
Willem Haen
Willem Haen
Branding Expert