Mazda has historically been a brand that, while certainly drawing its fair share of enthusiasts, lacked the mass-market appeal of the big Japanese car manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda. Naturally, this lack of popularity has slowly but surely pushed an otherwise high quality Japanese brand (#4 in reliability according to Consumer Reports) into a desperate position with a slim 2% global share of the market.
But don’t discount Mazda just yet. As British Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “Desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspiration as genius.” And clearly Mazda Motor Corp. CEO Takashi Yamanouchi is inspired. Last week he told Automotive News that his goal is to boost US sales an astronomical 43% by 2016.
Now, if you’ve followed Mazda’s marketing for the past 20 years, then you’ll remember that in the early 90’s Mazda attempted to circumvent their dwindling sales with Amati. Just like Acura/Honda or Lexus/Toyota, Amati was intended to be a “luxury brand” that would allow Mazda to attract not necessarily a bigger share of the market, but a more profitable one. The thing is, no cars were ever actually manufactured under Amati.
Fast forward 20 years. Mazda is still a relatively cash-strapped underdog, and they’re still determined to shift their market upwards to “Japan premium”. Better than “Japan economical”, I suppose, but the question is: what are they doing differently this time around? What is going to separate the next three years from the past 20?
Two Words: “SkyActiv” and “Kodo”
Technically speaking, the most noteworthy differences will be in the ever-improving SkyActiv technologies which are aimed to be included in 80% of Mazda’s fleet by 2016. These new cutting-edge technologies are aimed to advance the brand closer to premium appeal with improvements that increase performance and minimize environmental impact. See this year’s Mazda CX-5 hit crossover for an initial sample of what SkyActiv is intended to bring to the brand.
Another obstacle to “Japan premium” status that has always plagued Mazda is a lack of concern for style. They’ve always driven well, but typically from the inside their cars seem both noisy and, to be frank, ugly. That’s why Mazda is introducing the Kodo (Japanese for “soul of motion”) design language in addition to the SkyActiv technologies. Their goal with Kodo is to include more high-end materials in the part of the car that customers notice most, and to generally sleek-ify their cars’ silhouettes. Ideally, Kodo-themed designs will help Mazda more easily capture the eyes of their new “Japan premium” target market with a definitively luxurious aesthetic.
The Customer is Just as Important as the Car
Beyond the technical improvements, Yamanouchi seems to have a very clear path laid out as he said: “It’s about being a brand that has a strong bond with the customer.”
In other words, Mazda is looking to take their admittedly small sliver of highly loyal customers in the US and expand both outwards and upwards. So, even though Mazda is in the process of initiating production at a new $500 million factory in Mexico, they don’t want to pump that influx of new cars into new dealerships. Instead, Mazda is going to emphasize dealer-loyalty with increased earnings instead of more sales outlets. This will in turn enable Mazda to more tightly focus on improving customer service across the board, a key step towards successful repositioning.
Ultimately, it’s hard to judge whether or not these new changes that Mazda is bringing to the table will actually make a difference in their sales volume. Einstein once said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” There is a definite danger that Mazda’s failed brand-maneuvers in the past are going to repeat themselves in the short future. Mazda certainly has the motivation to succeed, but only time will tell whether or not their motivation is pointed in the right direction.
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