Mazda lures drivers into the rotary club

Mazda sports cars have a history of leading the company to success. Now, after the iconic RX-7 and the brand-saving MX-5, Mazda hopes the RX-8 will cement its position as Ford’s performance marque. By John Stones

Mazda has managed to perform a near-perfect handbrake turn. Having been close to collapse in the UK two years ago, the company has stabilised its sales and is about to launch a new flagship in the shape of the unusual RX-8 sports car.

The company is ploughing &£3m into marketing the RX-8 in the UK, the lion’s share of which will be spent on a television campaign. However, observers are questioning the direction of the advertising, which will be driven by Communist-bloc “revolutionary” imagery.

The RX-8, which will retail at &£22,000 (or &£20,000 for the lower-powered version), has two features that set it apart from other cars on the market. While it is a sports coupé, it has small rear doors, making it a practical four-seater and an alternative to four-door saloons. It will also be the only contemporary car to have a rotary engine, rather than the conventional piston engine. This makes it smooth and high-revving, though thirsty.

With the RX-8, Mazda will be looking to repeat the trick it has twice pulled off before of rejuvenating its brand for a new generation with iconic, big-selling sports cars. In 1989, it launched the MX-5, which went on to become the biggest-selling roadster in history, selling more than 600,000 units worldwide.

During Mazda’s dark days in the Nineties, it was this niche sports car that kept Mazda going. Earlier, in 1978 Mazda’s RX-7 sports car helped to transform perceptions about the desirability, rather than reliability, of Japanese cars.

Now Mazda has it all to do again. In 2001, as Mazda wrested back control of distribution in the UK from importer MCL, its market share dipped to 0.47 per cent – a mere 6,730 cars – according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Mazda now has a market share of 1.41 per cent and has sold almost 22,000 cars in the past year, an impressive increase of 49 per cent year on year. Only resurgent Kia, with growth of 85 per cent, grew faster in the UK. Mazda has an ambitious target of shifting 40,000 cars next year, of which 6,000 will be RX-8s. (The Audi TT – its biggest-selling competitor – has annual sales of about 9,000 and costs between &£22,000 and &£29,000.)

So far, the omens are good: the RX-8 has had rave reviews in the automotive press. Professor Garel Rhys, of the Institute of Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School, describes the car as “truly outstanding” and believes that it will attract people into Mazda dealerships. He says: “The halo effect of the RX-8 has the potential to be very potent, as the rest of the product range is now so strong.”

This is a factor not lost on Mazda: marketing director Jeremy Thomson points out that the launch and TV campaign for the RX-8 follow the unveiling of the Golf-sized Mazda3 at this month’s Frankfurt Motor Show.

Thomson also points out that Ford, which owns Mazda, uses the company to occupy niche segments it finds difficult with its primary brand. Ford has been building on Mazda’s successes with sports cars to reposition it as its mainstream sports brand, in the same way that Volkswagen is using the Seat marque.

Rhys says it is a compliment to Mazda that Ford last week saw fit to poach president and chief executive Lewis Booth, who will now head Ford Europe’s loss-making operations. Booth replaces Martin Leach, who resigned earlier in the month, and who is widely believed to be in negotiations for the top job at ailing Fiat. Rhys suggests that the move is also a sign that the hard work is over at Mazda, which will now have a Japanese chief executive – Hisakazu Imaki – for the first time since Ford took a controlling stake in 1996.

Mazda and its creative agency, J Walter Thompson, have decided that the slogans and iconography in the RX-8’s marketing activity should be “revolutionary”, to complement the RX-8’s unique rotary engine – and its “freestyle” doors. Initially, the agency planned to use imagery of Lenin and Che Guevara, but now Mazda is backing off. “We decided we didn’t need to show Lenin or Trotsky – the car should be the icon,” says Thomson, avoiding the question of whether using communist imagery to sell a red sports car invites derision and controversy.

Mazda also ducks the question of how communist imagery would play in the US, and is debating internally whether to retain Fidel Castro’s right-hand man in European marketing materials. Imagery of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a quite different take on communism, is being retained, as is the global brand slogan “Zoom zoom”. The principal slogans for the RX-8 will be “drive the revolution”, “cry freedom” and “freedom fighter”.

A senior figure from a rival manufacturer praises Mazda’s current model line-up, and sees the RX-8 in particular as the icing on the cake. He believes Mazda will have no problem in selling 6,000 RX-8s next year, helped by positive press coverage and aggressive pricing.

However, he says Mazda’s marketing has let it down in the past. “What is all that zoom zoom crap? It’s global marketing rubbish at its worst,” he says, adding that he understands the slogan was foisted upon Mazda’s European marketers by the US division. Any “revolutionary” themes in the marketing of the RX-8 are likely to reflect the power of the Young Turks in Mazda’s European marketing departments rather than anything else, he suggests mischievously.

The RX-8’s US launch has been soured after Mazda was not able to meet promised horsepower figures, something the UK team has managed to avoid. They have been carefully cultivating interest for the RX-8 ahead of its launch, delayed by a month to October. Mazda is proud of the fact that 1,500 orders have already been taken and is massaging expectations through a series of communications ahead of delivery of the cars. The first 1,000 customers to place orders have been given a limited-edition book and a framed design sketch of the car, together with other lavish mailings, and three of them were flown to Japan to see the car. A member of the team proudly reports that some of the initial marketing material is already being sold on eBay.

Whether or not such commodity fetishism would have Che Guevara spinning in his grave, it looks likely to get the requisite number of “thirtysomething” professionals behind the wheel of an RX-8.

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