Kimberley Gardiner’s first eight months as Mitsubishi’s chief marketing officer have been nothing less than transformative, ushering in the creation of an in-house studio and agency colocation, among other practices. Structural changes have been inspired not by rival marques, but by direct-to-consumer brands outside of auto.
Mitsubishi's North American presence has always been modest. Last year saw it claw a US market share of 0.68% compared to the 13.8% of all-American Ford and the 12.9% of rival Japanese manufacturer Toyota, and despite growing sales by 5.7%, the brand still lags behind the likes of Subaru, Mazda and its alliance partner Nissan.
Its business leaders have historically been candid regarding the challenges posed by the lucrative yet saturated market, which resulted in Mitsubishi shuttering its Illinois plant in 2015.
Since then, a question mark has hovered over the brand’s presence in the region. When its chief executive, Takao Kato, was recently asked if he’d consider pulling out of the US altogether in May, his answer was, unconvincingly, “probably” not.
Yet the company’s national chief executive, Fred Diaz, is confident he can double 2018 sales by 2023. Marketing, led by the newly-appointed Kimberley Gardiner, has been highlighted as a critical component in this business plan.
Since joining from Kia in January, Gardiner has wholeheartedly embraced Mitsubishi’s position in the market.
She has taken head office’s “small but beautiful” mantra, which prioritizes steady, strong profits over rapid volume expansion, and translated it into the idea of 'Small Batch' – a campaign platform that aims to position the marque as one that is highly-crafted, well-loved and limited edition.
'It's not for everyone,' warned a recent commerical endline, 'Is it for you?'
This attitude is reflected in the way Gardiner's own department produces work. Rather than running marketing like a factory floor, with campaigns being ritualistically rolled by the same creators just in time for product launch, she is treating the brand like a DTC label that demands perpetual content to keep it alive in the public eye.
“[We’re embracing] the idea of being ... nimble and mighty – making decisions quickly and acting like a scrappy creative brand that wants to make change happen fast – not a little version of somebody else.
“We, alongside our agencies and our partners, really think about ourselves like DTC brands – brands run by a handful of people trying to take on a bigger industry.”
Gardiner has recently established a small in-house studio to help Mitsubishi’s marketing move quicker and “fill the gaps” of consumer awareness between product launches. The current team has been pulled from media agency, OMD, and is responsible for everything from scriptwriting to filming in a way that is fast and cost-efficient.
A significant portion of this regular content will speak to Mitsubishi owners in a voice Gardiner believes Mitsubishi has thus far failed to “captivate or cultivate”. The studio is also working with the brand’s agencies, including creative AOR BSSP, to create supporting content around bigger product launches and campaigns.
In a further effort to speed up the rate of creative execution, Gardiner has begun housing key staff from her agencies within Mitsubishi HQ "at least" a couple of days a week.
“Now [agency marketers] are involved in projects from the beginning,” she said. “We don't have time for each individual agency to give their ideas and then plan something out. We have to go now, and make these things happen ... really efficiently.
"And [the agencies] are not only saying they’re going to change it – they're helping me actually change it themselves. They've got ownership of that as much as I do.”
With a desire to pull her marketing closer to the core of Mitsubishi in order to speed it up, the question remains why Gardiner doesn’t simply in-house everything. After all, the model would fit perfectly into the idea of small batch, carefully crafted output antithetical to factory-style production.
“What I saw with our current in-house team is the desire and the passion to do it differently, but not necessarily the experience,” she explained. “And it's really hard in a small organization for them to get the exposure when they're honestly just trying to manage their workload.”
That doesn’t mean Gardiner has failed to invest in the team, however. She has been working to educate and upskill each team member – "including my admin" – so they can speak with the authority as generalists while specializing in certain disciplines. It's another strategy in the quest to remove silos and implement a mindset of “small batch, multiple hats”.
“I want everyone to understand the bigger picture and start to understand that ideas can come from anywhere,” she said. “I want ownership across every single team.”
Gardiner’s changes (which she recalls animatedly setting out on a whiteboard in her original interview for the job) have been far-reaching. Yet she promises they are the “tip of the iceberg”.
Once the company’s relocation to Tennessee is complete, she’ll begin working on her grand plan to “restructure, reformulate and reimagine” Mitsubishi’s marketing “so that we have the always-on content and more communication with our owners; so that the brand is known for being there throughout the year, not just when you happen to signal in a Google search that you're interested in a small SUV.”
“I want to get people talking about the brand, sell more cars, and ultimately shake things up,” she said. “That's exactly what I think our leadership in Japan would say: there's no more ‘business as usual’, at least not for us.”