Mitsu’s Baack

We’re about to see what Mitsubishi Motors North America’s new ad agency, 180 LA in Santa Monica, has been up to since winning the account in June after a formal pitch.

Starting Oct. 15, people (disclaimer: 18 years and older with a driver’s license) can sign up for what the automaker is calling the world’s first Online Test Drive – for the new 2011 Outlander Sport. It all happens at the crossover’s microsite here:

The live, virtual test drives don’t start ’til Nov. 1, so be patient. Mitsubushi says the test drive will give you the feeling of being in the driver’s seat, with the motorist having “almost total control” over the vehicle.

The test drive is part of a bigger ad launch for the new model that will include TV, print, digital and direct mail. The test drive and ads run through January. We’ll reserve judgment until we see them.

Meantime, this virtual test drive via interactive remote controls sounds cool. But the success of it all depends on how well the technology works and how well Mitsubishi promotes it. The camaker doesn’t have a tradition of mongo ad budgets, which is most likely the main reason the incumbent ad agency, indie Traffic in Hollywood, stepped away from the account after only about 18 months. Let’s just figure Mitsubishi is spending well under $100 million annually on advertising. That’s an amount some car companies spend advertising a single model in a year.

We liked Traffic’s work -what little there was of it, especially the coupe of snagging James Sloyan, the familar, longtime voice of Lexus ads, to narrate Mitsu’s commercials.

But the Sloyan era at Mitsu ended pretty quickly. A shame. Why? Because the Japanese brass at Mitsu didn’t want to shake the tree too hard for their fellow countrymen at bigger, richer Lexus.

Mitsu has been slogging along for a while now, selling just under 54,000 new vehicles in the U.S. last year and sold a mere 41,392 in the first 9 months of this year. To be fair, that’s only 3% less than the first three quarters of 2009. And yeah, last year was an utter disaster for most of the industry and this year has been no picnic.

Mitsu makes cool-looking cars that are generally fun to drive and seem to be a decent value. The brand’s biggest problems are: A) Nobody knows B) Weak image C) Slow recovery from a near-death experience earlier this decade. That financial

tsunami bit into new product development, along with the company’s reputation after a scandal at its parent in Japan, where executives were arrested for hiding dangerous vehicle defects. In 2004, Mitsu’s Japanese parent lost its longtime development partner and stakeholder, Daimler. And faahh-get-about the executive turnover in the U.S.

Ah, but let’s get back to the virtual test drives, which I can’t wait to try. Sign up next Friday for the virtual test drive, please send me your feedback and we’ll compare notes.

We’ll get back to you on the new ads after they break.


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