Making Mazda stand out
New marketing chief tackles big challenge of small brand
LOS ANGELES -- Russell Wager's challenge is familiar to longtime Mazda watchers: How can the small Japanese automaker stand out in a crowded field of mainstream auto brands with deep pockets?
Wager, who worked globally at ad agencies on behalf of Nissan, Volkswagen and Kia before becoming Mazda's U.S. marketing chief in October, says he will start with efficiency.
He is scaling back splashy TV commercials, for instance, and spending more on online advertisements, which can precisely target ready-to-buy consumers.
"We've got to measure everything better. We've got to be more efficient," Wager said in an interview here. "Television is good, but we're not doing everything we need to do with digital."
Mazda's marketing budget, which a source says is about $325 million for Mazda's current fiscal year, is a fraction of most of its competitors' budgets. Nissan, for example, spent more than $940 million in U.S. advertising last year while Kia spent nearly $500 million, according to data compiled by Automotive News affiliate Advertising Age.
To help Mazda "punch above its weight," for example, Wager says he purchased a billboard in New York's Times Square for the freshened 2013 CX-9 crossover ahead of an ad campaign slated to begin in January.
"Is that spending more money? I'm just reallocating resources," Wager said. "But it's more impactful, and it'll help get the awareness of the vehicle up pretty quickly."
The CX-9 campaign, which was already in motion when Wager joined Mazda, will be the first work with his fingerprints. Wager said he reallocated some dollars initially reserved for TV spots into other areas of the campaign, which will include TV, billboards, cinema, print and Internet advertising.
Advertising for the redesigned Mazda6 mid-sized sedan, to be positioned as Mazda's flagship, begins after the CX-9 campaign quiets down in the spring.
Wager says Mazda's ads need a more sophisticated tone to match the brand's premium ambitions. Mazda will use design, environmental technologies and high-tech safety features to establish itself as a more premium brand.
Wager, 46, says the moves are part of how Mazda will break its glass ceiling.
"We have this glass ceiling of 300,000 units and 2 percent market share that we keep getting up to and then we bounce off," Wager said in the interview. As Mazda Motor Corp. CEO Takashi "Yamanouchi-san said, we're going to bust through that. We're going to get to 400,000."
Through November, Mazda's U.S. sales rose 10 percent to 249,795 units while the industry was up 14 percent.
Wager says a part of him has wanted to work with Mazda again ever since he oversaw Mazda's account at the brand's former agency, Doner, from 2003 to 2006. The University of Texas graduate has overseen a number of major automotive accounts, including Nissan's global account with TBWA in Tokyo from 2010 until this year and Kia's business with David & Goliath from 2007 through 2010.
But it wasn't until this summer that the prospect of joining Mazda seemed like a possibility.
Before joining Mazda in October, Wager was running Volkswagen's account in China with DBB Advertising in Beijing. He says he was approached by Jim O'Sullivan, CEO of Mazda North American Operations, and Robert Davis, Mazda's U.S. boss, this summer to join Mazda.
After seeing Mazda's product plans and sales goals, Wager was sold.
"They said, 'Ever had a thought of coming to the client side?' I've always wanted to do it, but quite honestly I never thought I'd have an opportunity to come to a brand I've worked with," Wager said. "It's like coming home."
Mazda's Skyactiv technologies -- its portfolio of advanced engines, transmissions, chassis and frame technologies designed to boost efficiency -- will continue to be a big part of the brand's vehicle advertising.
Wager says more needs to be done to educate consumers on the technologies.
He says that among customers who know Mazda's lineup and are familiar with the brand, 40 to 50 percent associate Skyactiv with Mazda. But few know what Skyactiv means.
"It's really low," Wager said of consumer understanding of Skyactiv. "It's a job we still have to do."
Digital advertising efforts can help, he says. Mazda has created a series of short videos explaining the technologies. Customers can visit the Web to learn more.
Wager also said digital ads will help pitch Mazda's first diesel engine for the U.S. market when it debuts on the Mazda6 next summer. Online ads can be more interactive and tell consumers more about how Mazda's new diesel engine will offer both performance and excellent fuel economy, he said.
Wager said: "I'm not going to be able to convey that in a 30-second television spot."
You can reach Ryan Beene at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Ryan on