Mitsubishi Wows Gen Y with Autonomous Test Drives

Mitsubishi intends to wow America’s car-buying youth with their launch efforts for the 2011 Outlander Sport, a small sporty crossover that just hit dealerships for less than $20k. The wow factor…the ability to autonomously test drive the car from your living room sofa.

I know what you’re thinking. And no, this is not simply a video game app or driving simulator utilizing a graphic representation of the advertised vehicle. This is an actual vehicle sitting on a closed course in Long Beach California just waiting to be remotely controlled by you via computer and high speed Internet. Mitsubishi says the effort combines multiple video cameras, advanced electronic receivers and state-of-the-art servo motors to control basic vehicle movements and sync it with precision GPS mapping to allow participants the opportunity to drive the new crossover remotely.

The campaign, dubbed “The Mitsubishi Live Drive“, kicked off on November 1st and is obviously an effort to up the brand’s street cred amongst tech savvy, video game playing 20 somethings who might view digital swagger and advanced robotics as a more relevant form of social currency than simply touting vehicle features as car ads traditionally do. All the high tech gadgetry came from ad agencies 180 LA and Schematic, production company B-Reel, web designer Simon Cave and robotics expert Dr. James Brighton of Cranfield University.

The concept is neat despite all the technical hiccups participants experienced during the first few days. Mitsubishi’s Facebook page, for instance, is littered with complaints from consumers who tried unsuccessfully to engage with the campaign. And even after web developers managed to get the bugs out, there still seems to be a whole lot of waiting going on when it comes to actually securing one of these virtual test drives. The website reported that I was 112th in line, which equates to a wait time of “less than 168 minutes”. The chance of me coming back to the site in 168 minutes to follow up…slim to none. I know rigging a car with advanced robotics is not cheap but perhaps Mitsubishi should look into more testers to get that wait time down.

In addition to the TV commercial and virtual test drive microsite, Mitsubishi also gave Facebook and Twitter followers a sneak peek before the car hit dealerships earlier this month. Facebook fan numbers, currently just under 75k, have doubled in the past few months thanks to new marketing initiatives like this. The brand hopes that the influx of new followers will help to diversify the uber gearhead conversations currently dominating the Facebook wall (the Lancer Evolution is derived from rally racing and has a cult following among tuners and customizers).

Research and measurement folks will tell you that an “effective” ad is one that is informative, entertaining, memorable and attention getting. Strategic planning people will argue that a clear and actionable single-minded idea is the key to an impactful ad (i.e. what is the one thing we want people to walk away thinking). And while I can’t find much flaw in either line of thinking, I start to question strategic underpinnings when an auto company encourages people to skip the dealership and, instead, take the car for a spin virtually. Uhm…I know we are a digital society and all but how can the vehicle’s driving character come out in any real way through a keyboard?

If Hyundai’s Assurance program has taught us anything it’s that marketers of goods and services need to stand out for reasons beyond new products and features. With this virtual test drive, Mitsubishi is obviously aligning themselves with innovation, a brand positioning that isn’t terribly unique these days. Perhaps brand managers, in a desperate effort to elicit consumer response and create some sense of shock value, rushed to market with something that is more executional than it is representative of some sort of larger brand character or overarching strategy.

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