Japanese women bang on taiko drums for the fiery introduction of the redesigned Eclipse. A subtitled commercial features an animated origami dragon bowing to the new Endeavor. Although Mitsubishi is the fourth-largest auto manufacturer in Japan, the company only began emphasizing its heritage in American ads a year ago.
In fact, Mitsubishi and its former agency Deutsch in Los Angeles, which had the account for seven years, had made its appeal to young-at-heart car buyers with a catchy music-driven campaign featuring young urbanites enjoying music while driving. After BBDO took over the business in 2005, the ads shifted from marketing the music-propelled driving experience to flavoring the product pitch with references to Japanese culture.
Mitsubishi isn't the first Japanese car brand to tap into the youth-oriented culture known as J (Japanese)-cool. Nissan emphasized its heritage in a mid-'90s campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day featuring a Mr. Miyagi-like father figure, Yutaka Katayama ("Mr. K"), in the Master of the Sixth Speed animated short for the Sentra SE-R in 2002 and in recent Infiniti work. However, even Rob Schwartz, TBWA\C\D's ecd, who has utilized J-cool imagery for Nissan, views its use with skepticism. While it may work for sports cars, he says, it could hurt sedan and truck sales, much larger segments than the sports-car universe, which Mitsubishi figures at half a million buyers, and brand-disloyal ones at that.
When Cypress, Calif.-based Mitsubishi Motors North America placed the creative portion of its $285 million advertising account into review in late 2004, sales had been in decline since 2002, and executive defections were common. Svp of marketing Ian Beavis left before the review began, and CEO Finbarr O'Neill left during the process, leaving evp of sales and marketing Dave Schembri, who joined in February, to hire BBDO a month later in March 2005. The agency, led by chairman and CCO David Lubars and evp, managing director Chris Hall, pitched the account using three offices and won the business with a campaign targeting independent-minded "fun-seeking strivers" with a new tagline, "Driven to thrill."
By February 2006, when Mitsubishi was spending less than $5 million a month advertising during the first quarter, Schembri and vp of marketing Wayne Killen also left the company. Mike Nash, American employee number 25 when he first joined Mitsubishi in 1982 and, once a Deutsch employee, became director of marketing, and Teresa Elston, another ex-Deutsch staffer, became group account director at BBDO.
Drawing from a market-segmentation psychographic study by GfK, BBDO's pitch emphasized how important the Eclipse launch is to the entire brand. Communicating the idea that performance plus J-cool equals thrills, the launch, argued the agency, would help lift the rest of the portfolio and lead up to a successful sedan launch with the Galant in May 2006. "J-cool was never a brand strategy, but more or a tonality," says Jim Lesser, ecd of BBDO West, Los Angeles, which is the lead office on the account. "J-cool was used at the beginning for the Eclipse relaunch, but we've transitioned to 'M-cool,' what is specifically Mitsubishi's. We're focused on features, the best-kept secrets about how well-engineered they are. It's less overt."
Nash, who was not onboard when BBDO pitched the "Driven to Thrill" strategy, says he probably would have endorsed it. "It positions us as the car company that gives the most thrills for the dollar, and gets a rub off that J-cool quality," he says. "It sees the car as something to be proud of for trendsetters."
BBDO's Eclipse introduction in May 2005 was quintessential J-cool. In the spot, directed by music-video maven Samuel Bayer, a red Eclipse rolls off a platform as scantily clad Asian women beat taiko drums and flames erupt around the car. Gauges and cylinders seem animated by the accelerating rhythm, as it crescendos with the voiceover, "Driven to thrill." Outdoor and print used animated peel-out trails, echoing the tribal flame decals of the "tuner" youth.
In October, the company's first pickup truck, the Raider, was launched with a $35 million media budget and a more American tone. The truck rides up a hill to duel a Nissan Frontier. The frightened competitor shakes, whines, blows a hose and leaks. "The new, intimidating Mitsubishi Raider," says the announcer. "It was different, aggressive,'" says Hall. "We stayed away from hip, cool."
The advertising returned to J-cool in March, with a lavishly animated "Origami" spot for Endeavor which, though an American production, used subtitles and a Japanese voiceover until the final lines, when the narrator explains the truck is "a mythic combination of beauty and beast." Another spot in April celebrated 25 years in America, and promised 25 more; and an Eclipse convertible spot showed cars moving in a chorus line and stressed a speed-sensing sound system.
The latest spot for the Galant SE, which broke in May, points to the future of the campaign, says Lesser. It employs action-movie imagery and pace, as a man leaves an urban street and enters a secret passageway guarded by models. He is apparently headed for a club's private party space, but he finds a Galant showroom instead. An Asian salesman explains the model's featuresas if making a backdoor deal. The J-cool iconography is subtle, Nash says, and the final effect is a product "walk around."
Ad spending dropped to $230 million in 2005, per Nielsen, and Mitsubishi ended the year 23 percent down, selling 124,000 units, per Car Concepts, Thousand Oaks, Calif. Overall, analysts give the advertising moderate reviews. "The advertising is acceptable but not breakthrough, and it's not moving the needle much," says Dan Gorrell, vp, automotive analyst at Strategic Vision, Tustin, Calif. "It's reminding people that the brand is out there, but it lacks the hook to get people to put it on their list."
Comparing sales figures for the month of May in 2005, when "Driven to Thrill" began, with this May, sales were up 4 percent to 12,000 units. From January to May 2005, the end of the Deutsch era, Mitsubishi sold 55,000 units with a $90 million media spend. The same period this year indicates a sharp drop in media spending through March, averaging under $5 million a month. Nash says the ad drought simply reflected a slow period. "We were building to the Eclipse Spyder launch in April," he says. Nonetheless, January to May 2006 sales dropped 12 percent over the same period last year to 48,000 units, says Turner. "More important, sales are down with a new Eclipse, a new Spyder, a face-lifted Endeavor and a brand-new segment in the Raider!" he adds.
BBDO, however, won an Effie award for its Eclipse work. Mitsubishi sold 24,000 Eclipse units in 2005, including roughly 10,000 old models, per Car Concepts, up 23 percent over last year. Yet the numbers don't mean much to the brand's future, says Turner. "They are strong in the weakest segment. That's not where you want to be." And while it moved 11,000 units through May 2006, up 93 percent over the same period last year, Eclipse sold over 72,000 units a year at its peak from 2000 to 2002, according to Iceology. "The product was so strong over the previous generation, basic advertising would probably have resulted in similar sales," says Wes Brown, automotive analyst at Iceology, Westwood, Calif. "As good a product as the Eclipse is, while it is not a failed launch, it's not a home run, either. It won't pull non-Mitsubishi owners into the mix."
So far, it hasn't persuaded brand fans to consider a Mitsubishi truck. The Raider was introduced last October with a $35 million campaign, per Nielsen, just after the Big Three employee-discount programs of the summer dumped mostly trucks on the market. Raider has sold only 3,500 units to date. "The advertising was successful," says Nash. "But with the domestic bombardment and the lack of incentives, it was the perfect storm."
Looking to the November Outlander launch, Nash remains optimistic perhaps because, the analysts agree, what really matters to Mitsubishi's future in America is selling mid-priced sedans and SUVs, i.e., the Galant, Lancer and Outlander. "Any well-founded, strategically based campaign should get better over time," says Nash, "and this one will."