Mitsubishi Motors’ CMO on What It Takes to Succeed as a Challenger Brand

The auto industry spends huge amounts of money on TV and digital advertising but is set to face some challenges in the years to come as consumers’ attitudes and the market soften. So, what does that mean for marketers?

Kimberley Gardiner, Mitsubishi Motors

I had the opportunity to sit down with Kimberley Gardiner, CMO of Mitsubishi Motors, to answer that question. One thing is clear: You should take a page from her book. In 2019, Mitsubishi launched its “small batch” campaign to redefine how the brand showcases its lineup, placing a focus on quality and the features that matter most.

Monique: Mitsubishi is a challenger brand. What freedom does that give you? Are you able to take bigger risks?

Kimberley: On one hand, our size and relative obscurity give us the freedom to do things in a new way, to hone our focus on the customers we really want to talk to and to change messages and look and feel when we need to.

The flip side is that failure hurts more when you’re small. A slight ripple across the industry might not be felt by our larger competitors but could result in a complete direction change for us. Conversely, our size gives us permission to be nimble and brave and try things larger companies can’t or won’t.

How has your perspective on success and failure shifted? 

Well, I spent many years at bigger companies—Toyota, Lexus, Scion, Kia—chasing different goals than we chase here at Mitsubishi.  At Toyota, the brand is a household name to three full generations of car buyers. The challenge isn’t brand awareness. It’s making its messages stand out in a field of sameness. Kia’s challenge was to make themselves a household name and to shed the quality image they’d had many years ago.

Failure hurts more when you’re small. A slight ripple across the industry could result in a complete direction change for us.

For Mitsubishi, it’s all of those—awareness, familiarity, breaking barriers and changing perceptions—but it all starts with a bigger problem. Too many shoppers know us for what we used to build, not what we build today. 

If I can get to a point where I’m in my local coffee shop and someone asks me where I work, and I tell them Mitsubishi Motors, I want them to say, “Oh, the small-batch brand.”  If I can get to that, I’ll know I’ve made a difference.

Success at Mitsubishi looks like increased awareness of who we are (the oldest Japanese car company in existence), what we stand for (small batch, doing good charitable work on a local level with our dealers as partners), and what we build (high-quality, top-value, long-lasting crossover utility vehicles.)

You’re at your year mark as CMO. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

Learned? Or reminded myself of? The biggest lesson is to be proud of small wins and never lose sight of the end goal. Mitsubishi Motors is a fiercely proud company with a wonderful history and a bright future, and I’m excited to be a part of the team telling those stories and stewarding the company to new heights.

What are you most proud of?

Sitting in an airport and hearing our catchy “small batch” music playing on a TV screen, looking up to acknowledge it and noticing a handful of people staring at the screen.

How do you think about delivering attention, especially in a mobile world where everyone is connected at all times?

Attention? In this world? If I can get a nanosecond of attention, I’ll take it. One of the ways we did it is to rely heavily on supers in all our TV pieces, because we can run them on social in the middle of a scroll (where a nanosecond of attention is all you get) without the sound on, and still be as impactful as in a full audio experience. Compelling images and a good story are as relevant today as ever.

When you think of convergence, what challenges do you have in pulling media, creative and technology together and how do you make it work for Mitsubishi?

Customers don’t differentiate where and when they shop, and they don’t know and don’t care about the purchase funnel. They’re always and never in-market, they’re exposed to messages from every company all day, and every touchpoint with a brand affects and impacts purchase intent. Good creative is just that—good.

But good creative run in the wrong place at the wrong time targeted to the wrong audience is a waste. With our small budget and small team, we have to maximize our ROI by not being everywhere. Our focus has to be on laser-targeting our prospective customers, being where they are when they’re there and being present, relevant and a little unexpected.