Mitsubishi enlists RF as AOR to put it back on consumers' radar

CYPRESS, CA: Mitsubishi Motors North America has selected Ruder Finn to be AOR for its US business.

CYPRESS, CA: Mitsubishi Motors North America has selected Ruder Finn to be AOR for its US business.

Richard Funess, president of RF Americas, told PRWeek that, as part of the two-year contract, the agency would focus on improving the automaker's product and brand communications while supporting its dealer communications and auto-show presence.

Janis Little, director of products and brand communications at Mitsubishi, said she hopes to see PR become a bigger part of Mitsubishi's marketing mix and expects RF will work on getting coverage in non-automotive media.

"We're really dialed in to our automotive trades and larger automotive Web sites," Little said. "But there [are] other areas - especially on the Web - that we need to start reaching to target buyers."

In Mitsubishi, RF takes on a tough assignment with a brand whose sales have fallen on hard times. The company sold only 123,995 vehicles in the US last year, a 25% drop from 2004. By comparison, the company sold 80,000 of its Galant sedans alone in 2003.

Little acknowledges the company has issues that must be addressed.

"We have low market share," she said. "And even though we're celebrating 25 years in the US, it's still a challenge to reach all the people we'd like to reach."

Funess said it was too early to discuss specifics about upcoming activities, but expects to see some work rolling out this fall.

"It will be everything from driving sales in any way, whether it's trade shows, corporate articles, business pages, [or] anything consumer-oriented," Funess said. "We'll do internal stuff, as well. We'll utilize our knowledge of electronic PR [initiatives relating to the Web], especially as it pertains to their dealer network."

Wes Brown, a partner at Iceology, a consumer research and trend consultancy, said the biggest problem for Mitsubishi is that its recognition is nonexistent for many consumers.

"Ultimately, it's kind of lost in the market right now because of all the struggles it's had financially, which naturally affected its ability to bring out more competitive products," Brown said. "It's not considered and not on anyone's shopping list unless you're trying to find a great deal."

Since Mitsubishi had seen its North American market share dwindle in the past three years amid executive and ad agency shuffling, Brown said the first major hurdle for Mitsubishi will be getting back on people's radar.

"I'm not going to say the brand's image is necessarily bad, it's just not there," Brown said. "It just doesn't even come up on the radar."

Mitsubishi, which Little said needed to focus on getting its message out, selected RF because it demonstrated an "excellent" understanding of the business challenges the company is facing.

"They proved to us that there's really a lack of brand awareness and not a negative brand awareness [among consumers]," Little said. "They showed a lot of creativity and depth of resources."

Brown also said Mitsubishi didn't seem to have a clear idea of what it wanted the brand to represent.

"I still don't know if they really know what they want the brand to be, and they need to work that out first internally," Brown said.

Little responded, "We know what we want it to mean and what the brand is, we are just trying to get the word out. 'Driven to thrill' is our tagline and is really driving everything that we are doing."

Brown said the company is not in a situation to go up against the "big boys from [a marketing] expenditure standpoint," so it needs to be creative while spending as little money as possible.

He added that Mitsubishi should determine what demographic it wants to target.

"Let's assume it's a younger audience, which was successful for them a few years ago, albeit it got them into financial troubles - then I think grassroots makes a lot of sense," Brown said. "They need to find the right types of placement and publicity by partnering with certain companies and events where you would expect to see a Mitsubishi-type of vehicle there."

Howard Solomon, MD of the three-month-old RF/West office, will manage the account. Funess said the West Coast office, which specializes in the tech and consumer practices, will work closely with RF New York and Bob Seltzer, head of RF's marketing practice.

"It's the largest client we have out there at this stage of the game," Funess said. "There will probably be six people and maybe more [working on the account]."

Previous AOR Stratacomm and another unnamed agency were involved in the final review, Mitsubishi's first since 1999. It worked with Fleishman-Hillard until 18 months ago when it switched, without an external review, to Fleishman-owned Stratacomm. Billings are undisclosed.

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