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Mazda Zooms Under Hughes


Miata, Protégé, Millenia, 626, Tribute, MPV and B-Series. That’s a whole bunch of cars and trucks for just a 1.5-percent share of the market.

It is also a mishmash of model names, and the biggest problem Mazda seems to have these days is not lack of product, but that not enough people know its first name. That’s why chief executive Charlie Hughes, who came on board last November after Richard Beattie went back to Dearborn to munch Marmite on toast with Jac Nasser, is trying to convince Mazda management to overhaul the nomenclature, possibly with a “Series” structure like BMW or a “Class” system like Mercedes.

Hughes won’t let on exactly what he is proposing, because he has more selling to do upstairs. Fortunately, one thing he does not have to change is Mazda’s advertising. For the first time in a decade, that is the one thing Mazda seems to be doing right via Doner, a Detroit agency.

Charlie knows about marketing and advertising. He ran Land Rover North America when that company knew what it was doing and had some of the best, clearest advertising on the planet. Just after Hughes left in 1999, the geniuses at BMW decided to fire Land Rover’s agency and one of the most celebrated ad writers in history, Roy Grace, in favor of a Texas agency that will be history before Dick Cheney has his next chest pain.

Detroit irony

It is ironic that Ford’s Premium Auto Group is moving to Orange County, Calif., to escape the culture-deprived Motor City, and that its ad agencies are working for Jaguar, Lincoln, Mercury and Volvo in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Meanwhile, Mazda, which is based in Orange County, selected a Detroit ad agency to craft its new image.

“The Zoom Zoom campaign we have is getting people talking, and that’s what Mazda needs,” said Hughes at the Chicago Auto Show, the morning after the campaign got its umpteenth plug on the David Letterman show. Dave seems to love that kid in the ads.

The Protégé is a helluva sub-compact car, and bested all others in its class in a recent Car and Driver face-off. Better than Civic, Echo, Focus, Sentra and the rest. Consumer magazines rate it as one of the best values in the market, and they are right. Still, the Protégé has almost no name recognition or equity with the public. That’s a shame. Protégé is such a well-kept secret that the new Sport Wagon is called just that. Not the Protégé Sport Wagon. The MP3 has Protégé jewelry, but the name is not featured prominently otherwise.

Prior to launching the Tribute SUV last year, Mazda was shocked to find out that Kia had better name recognition than Mazda in Southern California. Ouch! Kia had been getting by on ad budgets of around $40 million for just seven years, while Mazda’s history goes back to the 1970s. That’s hideous.

Searching for Premacy

But it should be a lesson to Mazda. Kia has achieved great recognition in the marketplace by having the right product at the right time, the Sportage, and by some hardworking grassroots public relations and event marketing done by its PR staff and agency. As good as Mazda advertising is these days, and it is, it needs to get out of the box a bit, and do some aggressive in your face marketing.

MPV sales should be doing even better than they are since one of the leading selling points is the disappearing third seat and the carlike ride. The only real competition for that is the Honda Odyssey, and people are waiting six months for those.

Geraldine and Vincent Natali of Germantown, Md., bought an MPV last fall after getting the bum’s rush from a Honda dealer and being told they would have to wait until April or May. The Mazda dealer offered to loan them an MPV for the weekend, and gave them a 30-minute test demo. That’s an opportunity that Mazda is not driving hard enough to seize.

2001 Mazda Premacy conceptNow, Mazda is looking to add another model, the Premacy, a tall wagon with rear seats that slide to provide limousine-like leg room for the rear passengers, or get removed to create a true utility hauler. It’s a product designed and built in Japan for the Japanese and European market, but Hughes thinks it could work in the U.S. It might, though it reminds one of the short-lived Mitsubishi Expo that was in showrooms in the early 1990s. Priced under $18,000, though, that would give Mazda four Protégé derivatives under $20,000—a pretty good value lineup.

With the sliding rear seats, we can imagine that Premacys might be adopted by New York cab drivers the way Honda Odysseys were. That was great marketing that Honda didn’t have to work for. Premacy could do the same.

Mazda is also bringing back its Miata BRG, British Racing Green, special edition. Oh baby! Mazda had this sweet little package ten years ago. It is only going to sell 3000 of them this year at about $26,000. Why not make more? It is a beautiful little car in that color and trim that truly makes us long for the British roadsters of the 1960s.

An MG that stays on the road! Get those out there, and get some into TV shows or movies. And then, maybe the name-recognition problem will go away.

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