TOKYO - As the head of Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s new Office of Marketing Strategy, Yuhiko Kiyota has a clear assignment: Transform the automaker from an engineering-driven company into one that is market-driven.
'Our cars were engineer-oriented cars,' he told Automotive News in an interview. Now his goal is to 'introduce products that the market thinks necessary, at a competitive price in a speedy fashion.'
He also needs to create a brand image for Mitsubishi, and make sure all of the company's new vehicles adhere to the characteristics of the brand.
There's just one potential problem: Kiyota, who now is the highest-ranking, most powerful marketing executive Mitsubishi Motors has ever had, is no marketer. Indeed, he is a product of the very engineering culture he now must try to shake up, if not overturn.
The 58-year-old Kiyota is a mechanical engineer, with bachelor's and master's degrees from Kyoto University. When he joined Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., parent of Mitsubishi Motors, in 1966, it was to work in the engine department.
He has labored in passenger-car product development for most of his career, gaining experience in market research. But he has never had complete oversight over a single model, which might have forced him to work more closely with the sales and marketing staff. He has never worked outside of Japan. He explains his selection as Mitsubishi's top marketer by saying, 'One of the most important roles of marketing is to guide the product development process.'
Indeed, that will be one of the main tasks of the Office of Marketing Strategy. And perhaps only a fellow engineer has enough clout to lead change in Mitsubishi's product planning.
TRACKING THE TRENDS
The new operation, set up in December 1999, is supposed to gather information on trends and consumer values in Japan and overseas markets. It also is responsible for 'the promotion of effective advertising' and 'the establishment and building up of the Mitsubishi Motors corporate brand.'
Mitsubishi tried to accomplish those goals before, but the organizational structure kept marketing, product development and sales separate. 'We needed to integrate all these separate functions,' Kiyota said.
The results of the Office of Marketing Strategy's work won't be on the road in the form of new models until 2001 in Japan and the first half of 2003 in the United States.
One of Kiyota's jobs will be to empower product planners in the United States.
For vehicles produced at Mitsubishi's factory in Normal, Ill., the concept and the product will be specially developed for the U.S. market, in conjunction with Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc.
'In choosing a sales product manager for North American products, we're thinking of choosing someone from MMSA and having the design done in our California design studio,' he said.
That will be a major shift from the past, when all product decisions for the U.S. market were made in Japan and largely reflected what Mitsubishi wanted to make, not what American consumers wanted to buy. Although that has changed with the current generation Galant and Eclipse, both of which were designed and engineered in the United States, Japan still retains - and exercises - veto power.
The Office of Marketing Strategy already is promoting a new Mitsubishi corporate brand identity. On Jan. 20 the carmaker unveiled a new corporate brand image, based on work done by its marketing department before the formation of the new entity.
Mitsubishi's new Japan-market advertising slogan is: 'Heart-Beat Motors, Mitsubishi Motors.' The company said it wants to produce the kind of products that 'raise the heartbeat when talk turns to cars.'
Along with its new advertising slogan, Mitsubishi has introduced a set of three core values it believes should run through all of its products and services:
1. Earth Technology: 'Technology that enables car users to enjoy the Earth's resources in an environmental-friendly fashion.'
2. Industrial Beauty: 'For those seeking the genuine article, the irresistible attraction of form and function in a perfect marriage.'
3. Next Frontier: 'The kind of trail-blazing creativity you want to tell everyone about.'
The new advertising slogan is part of the tag line for Mitsubishi's latest new model, the Dion minivan, which was scheduled to go on sale Saturday, Jan. 29, in Japan.
Takaki Nakanishi, a Tokyo auto analyst for Merrill Lynch Japan Inc., is not impressed. 'I don't understand what they're trying to tell me,' Nakanishi said.
'The methodology is so different from what Mazda is doing. Mazda is very specific, and their goal is very clear,' he added.
On the other hand, Nakanishi offered a backhanded endorsement of the need for Mitsubishi to create a product development market focus.
Commenting on the Dion, he said: 'Give me a break. It's just a (Honda) StepWGN coming four years later. It's a necessary product but no real change' in direction for Mitsubishi.
'Mitsubishi should be developing new products, not copying Honda. Mitsubishi still hasn't found their way,' he said.
The most difficult test for Mitsubishi's Office of Marketing Strategy may come from trying to market the company's gasoline direct-injection engines, Nakanishi said.
Although Mitsubishi's engineers and senior managers are enamored of the engines, consumers have been far from thrilled. And Nakanishi said Mitsubishi President Katsuhiko Kawasoe told him the automaker is going to listen more to consumers.
'The company has to find out if consumers really care about GDI or not,' Nakanishi said.
'In terms of corporate strategy and engineers' ego, they can't get rid of GDI. But dealers and the market are looking for cheaper product. It's not necessary for Mitsubishi to replace all of its engines with GDI,' as is the plan.
If Kiyota indeed challenges Mitsubishi's strategy for gasoline direct-injection engines based on what his market research tells him, that would be a significant victory of marketing over engineering - and a major shift in the power structure of Mitsubishi Motors.