Mazda picks up a German accent


Mazda’s new dealership design features natural materials and an open floor plan.

Mazda built its name on no-frills thrills and cars that go zoom-zoom, such as the RX-7, Miata and Mazda3.

But as brand executives see it, the quest to build market share, customer loyalty and profits will mean taking on a different persona, as a premium maker of elegant sedans and crossovers.

“Fun to drive” remains a cherished brand attribute. But the former Ford Motor subsidiary is learning to speak with a slightly different accent.

Driving a Mazda is like getting a taste of a “German-Japanese” blend, said Abby Manteghi, general manager of Fremont Mazda in the San Francisco, California.

While Mazda can’t pass itself off as a luxury brand, the mix of quality, handling and design has proved potent enough to draw upscale consumers who drive German cruisers — a trend that Mazda North American Operations CEO Masahiro Moro says has picked up in the last five years.

Mazda has communicated with these affluent prospects in recent years with its “Driving Matters” campaign built around craftsmanship and attention to detail. That U.S. tag line was set aside in April with the debut of Mazda’s first ad under the “Feel Alive” mantra, a brand platform celebrating exhilaration and inspiration that Moro says puts Mazda in “more upscale, premium territory.”

Woody Stilley, a sales manager at Southern States Mazda in Raleigh, North Carolina, remembers being fooled when he saw a spot for the CX-9 crossover a few years ago. Stilley, who was working for a Hyundai store at the time, said the ad — dotted with rich imagery of woodgrain and leather — had him thinking it was for Lexus or BMW at first glance.

“Mazda has positioned its products, the quality of them, to compete with Lexus, BMW and Mercedes,” Stilley said. “We’re actually having customers cross-shop those products with a Mazda.”

Manteghi said showroom traffic is made up of consumers — including a steady flow of doctors and engineers — who own Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz coming in to see what Mazda has to offer.

The Mazda6, above, and the CX-9 exemplify Mazda’s luxury-like styling.

Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Autotrader, said that she doubts Mazdas are being seriously cross-shopped against luxury makes, but that Mazda is able to get those customers in the door because of its looks. Today’s Mazda designs feature more sinewy shapes, chrome accents and futuristic headlamps, without the smiley-face grille.

She said Kelley Blue Book’s Brand Watch shows Mazda is No. 1 among nonluxury brands for exterior styling.

“Perhaps consumers think the styling gives Mazda its premium edge,” Krebs told Automotive News Europe sister publication Automotive News in an email. “Mazda also excels at driving performance, which may also add to the sense of premium.”

That sense must pervade the dealership as well if Mazda hopes to convert and retain those customers.

Mazda dealerships are being renovated under the Retail Evolution program introduced in 2014, which calls for natural materials in an open floor plan, a shift away from the previous youthful orange and green palettes.

The goal, Moro says, is a boutique vibe that’ll make customers, especially wealthier ones, feel welcome. Moro says the remodeled stores — around 40 have been renovated — should make consumers want to stay longer, have a coffee and come back.

“My biggest challenge is to work with dealers to improve customer experience,” Moro told Automotive News during the New York auto show in March. “The last five years, I have seen an evolution of customers that come to purchase Mazda. More upscale, premium intenders. We have to deliver a customer experience that satisfies those consumers.”

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