Generation Xers are clogging the phone lines at Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America. But many of them aren't calling for product brochures or dealer locations. They want to know what band is playing 'that music.'
The music is the hard-charging, alternative rock behind the latest Mitsubishi TV spots. It's also the new anthem for the automaker's effort to shed its discount image and portray itself as the source of Japan's most youthfully styled cars.
The TV ads, launched late last year, feature MTV-like rough-cuts and duo-tone images wrapped around Mitsubishi's new tag line, 'Wake Up And Drive.' This spring, products such as the 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse also will come under the 'Wake Up' campaign, which was crafted by Mitsubishi's new national ad agency, Deutsch Advertising in Los Angeles, to help reverse Mitsubishi's faltering sales.
The underlying idea is to combine Mitsubishi's strength of progressive styling and fun-to-drive reputation with consumers' concerns about getting older. 'We're not going after Generation X, but the Generation X in all of us,' says Eric Hirshberg, 30, Deutsch's executive vice president and creative director.
Mitsubishi could use a pick-me-up. Its U.S. sales dropped 15.6 percent from 1995 to 1998. The company consistently ranks below the industry average in surveys on everything from vehicle quality to dealership experience. Executives admit consumers are more likely to associate Mitsubishi with a TV than a car or truck.
Changing that perception is the challenge facing Deutsch. It won the $129 million Mitsubishi account last November, displacing Grey Advertising, which had handled the business since 1985. Deutsch's national work debuted with the launch of the redesigned mid-sized Galant sedan last August. The theme will extend to new network spots for the Eclipse and Montero Sport in February and March.
The message: S.O.S.
In recent years Mitsubishi had been propping up sales with lease subventions and rebates averaging $1,000 per car. Dealer promotions with names such as 'Carmageddon' and '911 Emergency' sent out a distressed-merchandising message to consumers.
'We were selling the deal and not the product,' acknowledges Peg Dilworth- Hunt, director of marketing for Mitsubishi Motor Sales in Cypress, Calif.
The company decided to change its tune in launching the redesigned Galant last year. Pierre Gagnon, its COO since 1997, already was leading the company away from distressed-retail merchandising. The new tack would emphasize youthful styling that contrasts with more staid designs from many other Japanese manufacturers.
Deutsch's approach, which it calls 'brandtailing,' is to create brand image and build retail traffic in the same ad. Most auto advertising does one or the other, but Mitsubishi needed help on both fronts. 'We told them their brand didn't stand for anything,' recalls Hirshberg, who grew up watching his dad, Jerry Hirshberg, design vehicles for General Motors and Nissan. 'To tell consumers they could get $2,000 off the price of a car they didn't already want is a meaningless proposition.'
Deutsch tested the idea with Mitsubishi dealers after winning the newly centralized dealer ad account in January 1998. Then it began pressing the automaker to apply the same concept to national ads. The agency got its chance after Mitsubishi, unsatisfied with Grey's work for the impending Galant launch, decided to review the entire account.
Deutsch's creative staff knew it not only had to show off the car's styling, but communicate youth and vitality. Deutsch lined up music from such artists as Republica and Iggy Pop, and signed Noah Wyle of the 'ER' TV series for voiceovers. The edgy music for the first Galant ads was generated by studio bands put together by the Tomandandy music house in Santa Monica, Calif.
Mitsubishi spent one-third of its annual advertising budget - $44 million - over six weeks to launch the Galant. Results suggest Deutsch's strategy is working. Mitsubishi had 36 percent more shoppers over the period than before the launch, according to information from the Allison-Fisher Inc. auto consulting firm in Southfield, Mich., and Diagnostic Research International of New York.
Consumers who said they planned to buy a vehicle within the next 12 months and would consider buying a Galant increased 25 percent from pre-launch to post-launch. Product-attribute scores such as 'styled better,' 'more exciting to drive,' 'great looking' and 'reliable-dependable' increased 8 to 18 percent from pre-launch to post-launch, according to the research.
Mitsubishi's 'Wake Up And Drive' tag line aims to catch the attention of shoppers looking for more pizzazz in their next vehicle. 'It says that you can go buy a Honda or Toyota and go to sleep (because) no one will notice that your heart is still beating,' says Michael Sheldon, Deutsch's executive vice president and general manager, a Chiat/Day alum who worked on both the Nissan and Infiniti accounts. 'Or you can buy a cool-looking, little-bit-sexier Montero Sport, Galant or Eclipse and make a statement that I have a little bit more vitality in my life.'