The pendulum that is Mazda Motor Corp. is about to swing back.
It has been stung in this decade by being too niche-oriented; then it was paralyzed into me-too conservatism. Now, Mazda says, its product development will return to a more enthusiastic course.
The marketing adjectives to describe the next generation of Mazda products are 'stylish, insightful and spirited' and will be applied globally, said Mark Fields, Mazda Motor senior adviser in charge of worldwide marketing, sales, service, parts and accessories.
'We want stylish design, clever touches and performance. What the brand stands for will help make global product development decisions,' said Fields, a 38-year-old fast-tracker in the hierarchy of Ford Motor Co., which owns 33.4 percent of Mazda.
'Each market will amplify certain attributes, but we will put a fence around the brand so we make the appropriate communication strategies,' added Fields, whose previous job was managing director of Ford's Argentine operations.
Industry analysts have postulated that Mazda's best chance for a comeback is to embrace its performance-enthusiast roots and become the Japanese version of BMW. It appears Mazda may be listening to the advice, but with a bit of a twist.
LOOKING AT BMW, ALFA
Being a Japanese BMW would be good for the performance side, but Mazda also wants the styling, flair and packaging that people associate with Alfa Romeo, said Martin Leach, Mazda Motor managing director in charge of product planning, design and programs.
'Although we're not about to go into rear-wheel drive like BMW, their performance and vehicle dynamics are things we'll achieve in a value context,' he said. 'Alfa Romeo involves itself in packaging innovation and flexibility, and I don't see BMW doing any of that.'
Helping Mazda identify the desired vehicle dynamics is new computer software that can turn subjective driving inputs and responses into data that can be analyzed. That partially replaces Mazda's past reliance on the pejorative language of test drivers to describe what they felt behind the wheel, Leach said.
'We have the objective data that precisely details the taste of what we are looking for,' he said. 'Mazda has a legacy of being a rewarding driving experience. We're not going to change that personality. It's all going to be how we execute it.'
Mazda wants the emotional connection customers get from the Miata roadster to be spread to the whole brand, indeed the entire Mazda ownership experience, Fields said.
'The essence must be consistent, from the feeling of the seat fabric to the treatment you get at the service cashier's window,' he said. 'Every time you touch Mazda, you'll know what to expect.
'In the past, we had a product philosophy, but not a brand philosophy, and we got the two out of whack. Mazda has always been an innovative smaller company, and that's a heritage we must focus on. We must make sure we have an alignment between product, sales and marketing,' Fields said.
U.S. DEALERS SPEAK UP
That should be welcome news to Mazda's U.S. dealers, who recently met with Richard Beattie, Mazda North American Operations president, to complain about a lack of product diversity.
While no dealer wants a return to Mazda's early-1990s misadventures with niche products such as the MX-3 econobox coupe and its a tiny V-6 engine, the dealers expressed a desire for more variety in the product line.
After all, they said, if Mazda is going to compete in segments owned by Honda and Toyota, its products must be special and noticeable.
'Every dealer likes new product, but I have confidence that Mazda is going to provide us the things we really need,' said Jim Brandolini, dealer principal of Modern Motors Mazda-Dodge in Thomaston, Conn. 'The future product line gives me a good feeling that the franchise is on its way back.'
Although Mazda is tight-lipped about future product, it is known widely that it will enter the mini-sport-utility segment in 2000 by co-developing with Ford a vehicle code-named U204.
Leach has been handing out a business card that hints that Mazda will unveil a rotary-engine sports car at the Tokyo Motor Show in October.
BOLD PRODUCT NEEDED
'We're effectively a five-product company, and we used to have nine. That's drawn a bit of dealer concern,' Beattie said. 'You'll see more Mazda products as the Ford and Mazda cycle plans are integrated.'
Mazda's global branding approach can work, but only if the new products are truly innovative, said Wes Brown, an analyst with Nextrend in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
'In their heyday, Mazda was focused on style, expression and the fun-to-drive character of the car, but unfortunately they became 'me-too' and tried to follow Honda and Toyota,' Brown said.
'There's definitely a place for them in the market, but the problem has been that they seem unable to make the bold product statement that will blow everybody away.'
Another hurdle is Mazda's control by - and platform sharing with - Ford Motor. Ford's product developers are becoming increasingly reliant on focus groups and research data, which Brown feels are at odds with creativity and innovation.
'It depends on how much control Ford has over design,' he said. 'But Ford also controls the purse strings, and with that, risk-taking is out the window and everything is researched to death. It's understandable when a new product costs $1 billion, but we're already seeing the problems when research takes over risk.'
Beattie disagrees. He uses an example from another part of Ford's world.
'The S-Type Jaguar may have lost some uniqueness by sharing a platform with the Lincoln LS,' he said.
'But under the auspices of platform commonality, it's the best execution I've ever seen.'