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Mazda’s master plan: Drivers wanted

2016 Mazda full line (Photo courtesy of Mazda North America)

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Mazda. I think the CX-9 is one of the best 7-passenger vehicles on the market right now. And though not many people are familiar with the Mazda6, it’s a safe, capable and practical sedan that also happens to be a great vehicle to drive.

I love the new “KODO – Soul of Motion” design direction across the lineup, and I especially enjoy the fact every vehicle in the Mazda lineup is fun to drive.

And that’s kind of the point.

During a recent lunch, Masahiro Moro, the new CEO of North American Operations, and Robert Davis, the senior vice president North American Operations, told a small group of automotive journalists about the vision for Mazda’s future. Afterward I walked away thinking: Finally, someone gets it.


Sometimes to think big, you have to narrow your focus. That’s exactly what Mazda seems to be doing.

BACK TO BASICS

Let’s face it, Mazda is a small automaker.

According to Moro, it holds less than 2 percent of the market share, and last year, they sold a mere 1.5 million vehicles. Worldwide.

That was a record.

While the automaker may want to be bigger, as Moro said during lunch, right now that’s not realistic or feasible. In fact, Mazda’s manufacturing capacity is just 1.6 million units. Do the math; there’s really not much room for growth in that equation.


So instead, the company is doing a bit of a 180. They’re getting rid of the legacy mindset and basically starting from scratch. From design to brand value management to customer experience, Mazda has requested a mulligan. And this new Mazda will be focusing largely on customer retention.

THE CUSTOMER IS KEY

“Everything we do is more customer focused,” Moro said.

In this new paradigm, Mazda views the relationship between brand and customer as more of a partnership. The goal is to create an emotional bond such that an owner not only returns to the brand again and again but also spreads the good word to friends and family.

Moro said the brand revitalization began in 2009. Since then, Mazda has created new products, improved design and added technology – all with the goal of evolving customer perception.


What’s more, Mazda is looking at non-automotive brands as a model for handling customers.

Moro said it is businesses such as Amazon, Google and Apple that are setting the bar for customer experience – not the likes of BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

“We hope Mazda will be the smart alternative to a premium brand,” Moro said.

THINK SMALLER

To be successful in the grand scheme of things, Moro said that the goal was to narrow the customer target as well as the business philosophy.

Once upon a time, the goal was to try to be everything to everyone. Mazda was trying to reach 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time.


But customer retention in the U.S. was less than 30 percent.

So, rather than trying to be all things, Moro said the new customer target is significantly smaller. The goal is to reach people who love to drive, and Moro estimates that is likely about 20 percent of the population.

Davis implied that the target could be – and may yet be – even smaller.

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MAZDASPEED?

You might assume that with Mazda’s renewed focus on people who love to drive, there will be a resurgence of the Mazdaspeed trim. While we keep asking the question and holding out hope, we actually walked away from this meeting feeling a bit unsure of the future of Mazdaspeed.

If you are creating a brand for people who like to drive, why not keep that performance trim at the ready?


Mazda’s company line is: We don’t talk about future product. But in answer to a direct question regarding Mazdaspeed, I received the following reply from a company spokeswoman:

“Not now, but maybe in the future. The MAZDASPEED vehicles were perfect fits for the company when they were in our lineup, but as our brand evolves to a newer, more upscale, more consistent place, we need to reconsider what a future MAZDASPEED vehicle might look like. Simply put, the cars we used to sell don't fit into the lineup we have today. While we can't say what the future will bring, we can say that any future MAZDASPEED vehicles will continue the Mazda Premium look and feel that is embodied in the rest of our vehicles.”

So, for now at least, the focus seems to be premium design, gorgeous interiors and fuel-sipping technology.

Though Mazda is a good 7 years into its new direction, Moro estimates that it’ll be at least 5 more years before the brand starts to reap the rewards of the plan they implemented in 2009. He said that it will take at least two vehicle generations for customer perception to do a complete turnaround, so we’re looking at 2021 before we’ll know if this master plan is a success.

Sales may be down by about 8 percent so far this year, but with the introduction of the new Mazda CX-9 last month, signs point to an upward trend. Sales of the SUV tripled from May to June and are up more than 300 units year over year.

At this point the Mazda story is to be continued, but if we were to ask the Magic 8 Ball, we think the answer would read: “Outlook good.”

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