The Long & Winding Road: Mitsubishi

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It's the campaign the creative community loves to hate. But U.S. consumers seem to love it. There's no denying that it is a mini cultural phenomenon: every new ad is now pounced on for its music ever since "Start the Commotion" made a name for the Wiseguys and "Days Go By" became a hit for an unknown British band called Dirty Vegas. "They're pop videos masquerading as commercials," say the critics. "What's the takeout? They tell you nothing about the cars." Meanwhile, brand awareness has risen from 44 percent to 60 percent in just over two years. Interestingly, rival auto marketers talk about it.

But talk to the Mitsubishi Motor Sales North America president/COO Greg O'Neill, and Deutsch executive creative director Eric Hirshberg, and they know that their task is to focus on the product and not let the entertainment element of the ads subjugate the message.

The polarizing is curious. It's as if the MTV generation never existed; as if we had never learned a new, more lyrical, less literal language of communication. Nike, the Gap, Target and Levi's (Europe) long ago blazed a trail for ads that are about an attitude that says as much as the classic 30-second story with a twist in its punchline. Mitsubishi's cars are assuredly about young urban cool and sex. You cannot be these qualities if you literally say you are. The key lies in the visual imagery, the casting and the music. Hirshberg concedes it gets his "ire up" when critics say there is no concept.

The shift to "attitude" is made possible partly by the rise of the internet as the source for left-brain marketing (discussed elsewhere in this feature) and partly the product design. The knowledge that Mitsubishi could not attack giants like Toyota and Nissan head-on with only a fraction of the spend forced Deutsch to be more inventive. "They lacked brand awareness and budget, but what they did have was a new product line that looked like hot wheels," Hirshberg says. "Muscles over the wheels, spoilers. They looked custom or souped up. Talk to consumers about cars and they rarely talk about the things car companies talk about - even handling and acceleration. They talk about what image they want to project through their cars: which one is me? We've turned Mitsubishi into the first fashion car brand. It's emotional territory that Mitsubishi can, and does, own. We have definitely erred by design on the side of Mitsubishiness because of the lack of brand recognition. Now we're spending a little more on product specificity. 'Cool' has a lot to do with currency. The hardest thing is to stay cool. We're about breaking new brands, not the Madonnas or Bruce Springsteens."

"For the demographic we're trying to reach, we have to be authentic," says O'Neill. "We're edgy, we take risks, but we don't do it for the sake of it. We knew we would get lost if we told 10 messages in our ads with our spend. Our car, our brand is about how it makes you look and feel. It's sexy and tactile."

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