LOS ANGELES - It's tough enough being a small player in the mid-sized sedan segment. It's harder still when you launch your redesigned sedan into the middle of a battle royal between the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry for best-selling car honors.
Such was the fate of Mazda's volume-leader 626 sedan, which hit the market in October - just as Honda and Toyota put massive advertising and incentive pushes behind their sedans in an effort to win the top-car title.
As a result, the new 626 was basically ignored by deal-conscious consumers.
'The lease deal on the new 626 was higher than ... those offered on Accord and Camry. The Accord-Camry fight hurt us,' said Fred Ehlers, Mazda North American Operations sales director.
Like its competitors, the 626 comes in four-cylinder and V-6 models, and is priced from $16,000 to $24,490. That compares with $15,495 to $24,545 for the Accord sedan and $17,358 to $25,288 for the Camry, for similar trim levels. All prices include destination charges.
NOT JUST PRICE
But it's going to take more than price to get consumers' attention on the 626.
The launch advertising campaign - the last product ads done by outgoing agency Foote, Cone & Belding - didn't connect with consumers, said Ron Neale, Mazda marketing director.
Of the trio of ads, the most memorable featured a man in a blindfold driving a 626 across the open desert.
'The method of communication got in the way of the message. The executions obscured the communication,' Neale said.
The slow launch even triggered harsh words back in Japan.
'We launched it poorly,' said Ron Leicht, senior managing director in charge of marketing, sales, and parts and accessories for parent Mazda Motor Corp.
In addition to the Accord-Camry fight, Leicht cited a lack of dealer inventories at the time of the launch, a poor handoff for new ad agency Doner Automotive, and the campaign itself.
But in February, Mazda launched a new campaign from Doner, increased standard product content and shaved $20 a month off the lease payment. Things have started to turn around.
March was the best 626 month ever, at more than 12,000 units. And that happened without pulling forward too many April sales, which still were respectable.
GOAL IS 75,000
Mazda hopes to sell about 75,000 626s retail this year and another 15,000 to fleets. That would be the biggest year ever, although 1995 comes close. Mazda will need more months like March, however, to hit that target.
How does the 626 stack up against the competition?
Neale contends that the 626 wins by being more of a driver's car, with better handling and more distinct styling than others in its class. However, it is short on some interior features, lacks horsepower with the four-cylinder model and loses in perceptions of quality, durability and reliability, he concedes.
Ehlers, however, is not so worried about product differentiation as he is about the Accord thrashing the Camry so soundly of late. The margin between the two heavyweights was 19,636 units through April, and climbing.
'Camry is getting beat up,' he said. 'If Toyota decides they don't like that, and escalates their incentives even further, it's going to be tough on us.'
Staff Reporter James B. Treece in Tokyo contributed to this report