The CMO Interview

Why Mitsubishi Is Taking an Online Test Drive for a Spin

Q&A With VP-Marketing Gregory Adams

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Mitsubishi Motors North America, in an effort to rekindle its image as a technologically innovative brand -- and generate a bunch of buzz in the process -- today announces what it claims is the first online test drive of its kind.

The Mitsubishi Live Drive will enable people to use interactive remote control to literally drive the new 2011 Outlander Sport in a closed course in Southern California. Starting Nov. 1, U.S. residents aged 18 and older with a valid driver's license can register at microsite to "test drive" the vehicle through Nov. 10. The test drive is part of an integrated marketing campaign launching Oct. 15 that includes TV, print, digital and direct mail.

The company turned to its new creative agency, Omnicom Group's 180, Los Angeles, and production company B-Reel, as well as robotics expert James Brighton and web design expert Simon Cave, to pull off the stunt. Mitsubishi's other agencies are WPP's Schematic for digital work and Triaville Communications for public relations. It's a manifestation of the company's desire to have its shops work together as one, with Mitsubishi's internal marketing operations acting as, essentially, lead agency.

Mitsubishi, like other automakers, has felt the pinch of the recession in recent years. For full year 2008, the company sold 119,000 vehicles in North America, a 26% fall over the previous year. In 2009, Mitsubishi at times saw double-digit sales decreases and increases from month to month. The company reported 2009 sales of 53,986 vehicles, well below the estimate it earlier said it hoped to hit of 92,000. Most recently, Mitsubishi Motors North America reported September 2010 sales of 4,961, a 5.3% increase over September 2009 sales.

At the helm of this latest effort, as well as overall marketing operations, is Gregory Adams, VP-marketing and product planning, who joined the Cypress, Calif.-based company in May from Ferrari. It's actually his second stint at Mitsubishi. After working at Ford and Nissan in the U.S., he moved to Japan to first work for Mitsubishi in the product planning division. He then went to Chrysler in China before joining Ferrari, first in China then in Japan.

Mr. Adams talked with Ad Age about Mitsubishi's latest effort. Assuming it's successful, while they may not do exactly this same stunt for other model launches, he said look to Mitsubishi to be providing consumers with similarly unique marketing experiences in the future.

Ad Age: Where did the idea come from?

Mr. Adams: [When I] came back ... the first thing that needed to happen was bring in the new agencies.* So 180 had gone through a lot of the [process] of picking an agency on the creative side. We had not picked an interactive agency yet and we needed to pick a PR agency. The key thing was to make sure that the knowledge of everything was passed on. We decided that ... [because] we had three new agencies coming in and a new launch coming it made sense to have the Mitsubishi [marketing] group manage everything. From day one, minimum twice a day, we'd get together and talk about everything. [An integration mindset] goes everywhere up to all the activities we're about to do, and I credit all the agencies for adopting that mindset so that we could move quickly.

I officially came in April 19. Through May we went through the process of choosing the agencies. June 1 everyone was essentially signed on. June was, "Let's get to know each other," July was, "Let's discuss fine points of strategy." At that point 180 came to us with three ideas of what to do, knowing that our goal was not only to launch a car to reinvigorate the brand and to remind people that were an extremely innovative company, but also introduce something called M-Gen -- Mitsubishi Generation. I came in and saw some consumer passion for the brand like what I saw at Ferrari. And that was an asset, this social asset, this communal asset that really needed to be brought forward and celebrated. And we were hearing some amazing stories of what people were doing with their cars ... that kind of active spirit is what we needed to leverage. ... It's really for people who just love their cars.

With this campaign, we're asking people to join the world's first online test drive and understand the Mitsubishi experience. We really need to remind people of the wonderful, innovative nature of Mitsubishi cars.

Ad Age: What if it fails or there are technical glitches?

Mr. Adams: This is the risk [of] trying to do something bold and different. On the other hand, we have looked at so many things. We have two cars ready to go. It's controlled by GPS, so there are virtual boundaries [so you can't go outside the course]. Should there be something that goes wrong, we will have downtime every day; it's not 24 hours a day. The two vehicles will be tested during the downtime. There will always be a team of mechanics on site, a team of marshals to make sure the out-of-bounds rules are being followed. So we've got a lot of preventative measures that are put into place. Anything can go wrong, but to be honest, in some cases, that can be part of the overall experience. You want to roll the dice a little, you have to anticipate crazy things happening.

Ad Age: How much did this initiative cost?

Mr. Adams: It was very reasonable. We worked very hard with 180, which did a good job of controlling costs.

Ad Age: Does doing a stunt like this bring attention to the stunt, or to the car?

Mr. Adams: For sure we will measure it. We can watch how many people are coming to our overall website so we can see what the halo effect of doing such an event is. The thing about doing this interactively is it will enable us to see if this is paying off.

Ad Age: What does it do for the brand?

Mr. Adams: It reinforces that we are out of the box, we don't do things typically. We really need to get back to what the core of Mitsubishi is. We're different. We know we're different and we want to celebrate it.

Ad Age: Why'd you think it was the right choice, for the organization as well as for you personally, as a new marketing head?

Mr. Adams: One is, I know [President-CEO Shin Kurihara] very well. He really understands products. He really loves Mitsubishi, he loves and appreciates the U.S. market and he wanted to try something different.

Ad Age: So he granted you carte blanche?

Mr. Adams: Carte blanche. He said ... go for it, try it. When we first presented this idea to management, there were some at a very high level who didn't get it. So all I asked for was, guys, you know we need a big idea, I said give us three weeks, we'll show you how this is going to work, how it will be promoted, and we believe you'll agree with it. And it got approved with the caveat that we needed to come back with a review in three weeks. We showed how cool an experience it can be, we showed how you can invite your friends to be on this ... [how with] this you're immediately getting people engaged, to sign up.

*UPDATE: After publication of this story, Gregory Adams contacted Ad Age to retract the following statement, which has been removed from the story: "Specifically, they had decided that [former creative agency] Traffic was just not up to par as well as the interactive agency that was working with them at the time."

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