A Detroit advertising veteran is taking the reins of Mazda Motor Corp.’s marketing efforts in the U.S., as the automaker attempts to rework its image and push upward toward the premium tier.
Dino Bernacchi, 47, begins May 1 as chief marketing officer for U.S. operations. He will oversee “all aspects of brand communications” domestically for the Japanese auto-maker — particularly related to customer experience.
He enters Mazda at a precarious time, as it attempts to move from its youthful “Zoom-Zoom” image into a higher tier where it can sell higher-priced, more upscale vehicles under the “Mazda Premium” brand identity and its 2-year-old “Driving Matters” tag line, which so far has failed to evoke the passion of its predecessor.
“They’re trying to find their unique niche in the Japanese automotive landscape. To be as they are now is kind of like an alternate to Honda, Toyota and Nissan.”
“As customer tastes and expectations change, and Mazda moves itself to a new, more premium position in the industry, it is critical that Mazda be laser-focused in our approach to how we tell our proud brand story at every touch point in the customer’s journey with us,” said Masahiro Moro, Mazda North American Operations CEO, in a release announcing Bernacchi’s appointment.
Mazda’s new hire mirrors last week’s move by Kia, which hired another Detroit marketing veteran, Saad Chehab, to lead its U.S. marketing. Chehab, the creative mind behind some of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ most memorable ads, joins Kia ahead of the launch of the Stinger GT, a performance car that Kia hopes will solidify its image as a legitimate producer of luxury vehicles, and not just value-priced small cars.
The newly created chief marketing officer role at Mazda adds a position between Moro, who also acts as Mazda’s global chief marketing officer, and Russell Wager, vice president of marketing for Mazda North American Operations. Wager, who will report to Bernacchi, will continue to oversee Mazda’s “external communications activities.”
Mazda spokesman Thomas McDonald said Wager will retain his day-to-day responsibilities and “traditional marketing roles,” while Bernacchi will focus on the overall Mazda Premium brand positioning and long-term strategy. Bernacchi, he said, was “absolutely not” hired to take over Wager’s position.
Bernacchi has spent 23 years in marketing and communications positions at such companies as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., General Motors, Visteon Corp. and Detroit-based advertising firm Campbell Ewald.
Finding a niche
The addition of Bernacchi doesn’t necessarily mean a change for Mazda’s overall marketing efforts but an additional focus on them, according to Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.
“They’re trying to find their unique niche in the Japanese automotive landscape,” she said. “To be as they are now is kind of like an alternate to Honda, Toyota and Nissan.”
Mazda’s products, Caldwell said, have made significant strides in recent years and increasing customer experience and marketing are “really the next step” for the brand.
“Mazda is trying to define their own niche in the same vein as Subaru,” Caldwell said. “Not outdoorsy, but driving, handling and experience to be a driver’s car.”
Subaru’s progress highlights the hill Mazda must climb. Having commanded the loyalty of adventurous consumers who value utility and practicality, Subaru has seen its market share grow from 1.4 percent in 2008 to 3.5 percent in 2016, according to the Automotive News Data Center. And that’s while demanding higher average transaction prices with far lower incentive spending than other mainstream brands.
In that same period, Mazda’s market share declined to 1.7 percent from 2 percent.
This is at least Mazda’s second major push in 25 years to establish itself as a more premium offering.
In October 1992, the automaker pulled the plug on a planned luxury brand called Amati that was expected to begin selling cars through a network of 50 dealers in 1994.
The project — initially meant to compete against then-startups Lexus and Infiniti — was canceled due to the amount of funding needed to start a new brand.
Kelley Blue Book executive market analyst Jack Nerad, who led communications for Amati, said it’s going to be tough for Mazda to drive itself into that premium space.
“It strikes me that they’re trying to do what they were doing in the ’90s,” he said. “It’s difficult to establish Mazda as being premium to Toyota or Honda. That’s just not how people feel about that brand.”