Mazda turns to new ads image Japanese company seeks to improve 7th-place standing

Automobiles

October 20, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

In its 27 years in the United States, Mazda has been the rotary engine car, the great little car, the Miata company and the company with a minivan.

But it has never progressed beyond seventh place -- a distant seventh at that -- in the race to win American car buyers' hearts.

The problem?

In a cutthroat business in which a carmaker's message must rise above the competition's, Mazda has failed to make itself heard by consumers, industry observers say.

"Our research shows that a lot of shoppers perceive that Mazda is disappearing," says industry consultant George Peterson, president of Santa Ana, Calif.-based AutoPacific Group. "They [Mazda] haven't been consistent in their image, and people don't know anymore what they stand for."

While competitors Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and American Honda Motor Co., both based in Torrance, Calif., have spent more than 30 years pounding home consistent messages -- Toyotas are reliable quality cars and Hondas are simple quality cars -- Mazda's messages have been all over the board.

One year the importer's cars "just feel right." The next year it has "a passion for the road." It has touted its engineering, handling and luxury in the past, but for the last three years has concentrated on ads that focus on low-cost lease or purchase plans. Such advertising is considered the last resort for a struggling auto company.

When you are seventh in sales, "it is hard to get people to put you higher" in their consideration, concedes Richard Beattie, the youthful Ford Motor Co. and Jaguar executive appointed seven months ago to take over and revitalize Mazda's North American operations.

Beattie, 42, transferred from Ford-owned Jaguar to Mazda after Ford purchased a controlling interest in Japan's ailing Mazda Motor Corp. last year. A longtime ally of Mazda Motor President Henry Wallace, another Ford alumnus, Beattie is expected to get support from Mazda and Ford.

He already has completed a corporate reorganization that puts all five of Mazda's U.S. and Canadian companies under one command -- Irvine, Calif.-based Mazda North American Operations.

Now, he says, fixing the company's image through advertising is a key strategy in his multipronged attack. And circumstances have given him an immediate opportunity to address the advertising message.

Foote, Cone & Belding, Mazda's sole U.S. ad agency since the company began marketing cars in the United States in 1970, has had to resign the $240 million account. Its parent, True North Communications, merged with Chrysler Corp.'s ad agency this summer

Mazda has asked three other agencies -- W. B. Doner, of Baltimore and Detroit, GSD&M of Austin, Texas, and Ogilvy & Mather in Los Angeles -- to pitch new campaigns. Beattie says he intends to pick the company's new ad agency before the end of the year -- in time to prepare a campaign for the redesigned 1998 Miata and to prepare additional corporate image ads that will probably build on two new spots just prepared by Foote, Cone as its final work for Mazda.

Ogilvy is thought to have an edge in the competition because of the work the agency's Detroit office has done for Ford.

Mazda's woes aren't uncommon in the U.S. car industry. Nissan Motor Corp. USA -- the No. 3 Asian car importer -- has spent two years trying to rebuild its image with a $200 million "Enjoy the Ride" ad campaign that apparently has failed to sell cars.

Nissan President Robert Thomas, a strong believer in the ad campaign from TBWA Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, resigned amid a 2.3 percent sales decline this year.

But Mazda's problems are more grievous. Sales plunged 36 percent from 1994 to 1996 and are off an additional 8.1 percent for the first nine months this year. So its struggle will be a critical test of the power of image advertising.

The $50 million Foote, Cone ad campaign, intended to provide Mazda's new agency with a jumping-off point, debuted this month with a 60-second television spot presenting Mazda's cars as "not a car for everyone, just a car for everyone who loves cars."

Over a montage of images of the company's current lineup, the ad proclaims that a Mazda is "not like other cars."

Mazda's people "think different" and its cars "look different" and "drive different" from the competition's because Mazda is "technical innovation, not technical imitation," the ad says.

A second spot in the image campaign -- slated to begin airing late this month -- uses footage of the various vehicles Mazda has introduced in its nearly three decades in the United States, including the rotary-engine station wagon and RX-7 sports car, the Miata roadster, MPV minivan and the Millenia luxury sedan, to convey the message that Mazda has "more engineers than accountants," isn't afraid to take risks and doesn't make boring cars.

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