Japan's 2nd-tier car brands enjoy record '99 sales

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The good tidings of 1999's record auto sales brought joy and some comfort to a trio of second-tier Japanese imports: Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan.

And all three have the same New Year's resolutions: to repeat the improved sales posture and, possibly, encroach on the sales of their top-performing counterparts, Toyota Motor Sales USA and American Honda Motor Co.

Mitsubishi and Nissan, among other reasons for the improvement, cited more advertising dollars invested in their brands by regional dealer ad groups. Both marques' dealer groups spent nearly as much in the first half of 1999 alone as in all of 1998 (see chart).


The sales gains at Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America were the most dramatic among the trio. The marketer enjoyed five straight best-ever months -- from July through November -- and a 33% jump for the first 11 months, according to Automotive News. In November, Mitsubishi also surpassed Mazda for the year.

Peg Dilworth-Hunt, director of marketing at Mitsubishi, cited a consistent ad message under the "Wake up and drive" ad theme developed by Deutsch, New York and Marina del Rey, Calif. The theme evolved with the late summer launch of the redesigned Eclipse coupe.


The blitz of tongue-in-cheek ads hammered home the point that a car's looks do matter. As evidence of its success, company executives said the brand's buyers cited Mitsubishi's styling as the main reason for buying the vehicles.

"So, styling has to be a key part of our communications," said Ms. Dilworth-Hunt. "We try to lovingly caress these vehicles on camera."

The marketer also opted for a consistent media presence throughout the year.

"There were times in the past when we ran out of money and just disappeared in the last quarter of the year," Ms. Dilworth-Hunt explained.

That didn't happen in '99. Mitsubishi, which only bought spot TV in 1997, expanded to national TV in mid-'98.

When the industry's 1999 tally is totaled, Mitsubishi expects to top 1994, its last record U.S. sales year, when it sold 230,279 vehicles.

Brand awareness of Mitsubishi has improved from 44% in 1998 to 53% now, said Ms. Dilworth-Hunt, citing research by consultancy Allison-Fisher.

Said Mike Sheldon, exec VP at Deutsch: "They have new and great products that are finally recognized as a great brand."

Mitsubishi will continue its ad theme in the planned spring launch of the new Eclipse Spyder convertible.


Mazda North American Operations is playing in the same brand-defining sandbox as Mitsubishi.

"Mazda always had a little bit of a styling edge," said Richard Beattie, its president-CEO, who added that his biggest accomplishment during the past year was improving dealer profitability while boosting sales.

However, he wishes that sales had risen more and that Mazda was higher than third or fourth on buyers' shopping lists.

He's confident the mid-2000 arrival of Mazda's first sport-utility vehicle will lift sales. The advertising for the new Tribute will fall under the "Get in. Be moved" ad theme developed in 1998 by Doner, Southfield, Mich.

He added that Mazda's ad spending will rise modestly this year.

Nissan North America's Nissan Division spent most of its 1999 ad dollars on two key launches during the first half of its fiscal year, which started April 1, said Jed Connelly, VP-general manager of the division.

He's proud of the fact that the all-new Xterra sport-utility vehicle and redesigned Maxima sedan were launched without sales incentives. The two vehicles are accounting for roughly 35% to 40% of Nissan's sales volume.

While Nissan's truck sales rose to 228,100 through November, up 32% from the prior year, cars slid 4% to 323,361 during the same period, Automotive News reported.

Mr. Connelly said Nissan had fewer Sentra cars to sell; it halved Sentra production in '99 vs. '98. Both Maxima and Altima sales were up through the first 11 months of 1999.


Nissan's incentives are roughly half what they were in 1998, when they were the industry's highest.

Mr. Connelly said advertising from TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif, played an integral part in Nissan's success last year. TV spots showed Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International, touting the vehicles.

"We priced the vehicles right and marketed the products on their strengths and value," said Mr. Connelly, who added that Mr. Hirshberg will make occasional ad appearances this year, particularly when Nissan launches a redesigned Pathfinder SUV and a new Sentra.

Among Mr. Connelly's goals in 2000: give vehicles sustained advertising after their launch blitz.

Although he said he doesn't expect sustaining ads to have budgets as large as launch campaigns, Nissan will "not have one-year wonders," he promised.

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