Standing in the shadows of Japanese behemoths Toyota, Honda and Nissan, Mazda occupied an enviable niche for decades as the darling of driving enthusiasts, hawking affordable cars with a performance bent.
Now the Japanese automaker is leveling up, targeting a broader, upwardly-mobile millennial audience.
“We are now falling right in between mass market and luxury,” Chief Marketing Officer Dino Bernacchi told Fortune. “It’s the sweet spot for us.”
When Bernacchi joined Mazda in 2017, market research showed that car shoppers associated the brand with words such as “youthful,” “sporty,” “fun,” “cheap,” and “red.”
“We needed to clarify Mazda’s position amid the inconsistency and uncertainty,” Bernacchi said. “We feel good now that we have a single message and not 26 different ones.”
Mazda is positioning itself as a premium brand focusing on affordable luxury features. During the past year, Mazda has launched a higher-end “Signature” trim for several of its vehicles with Nappa leather, exotic wood trim and standard all-wheel drive.
Customers are now cross-shopping with luxury marques such as BMW and Audi, Bernacchi said.
“This is Mazda’s intention to move the brand beyond its longstanding ‘fun-to-drive’ reputation,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Kelley Blue Book. “As millennials improve their earning potential, it makes sense for a brand like Mazda to heighten its appeal with this demographic.”
Bernacchi said Mazda’s challenge is to maintain its longstanding fan base while reaching customers without an emotional connection to the brand.
So far, the new direction doesn’t appear to be alienating loyalists. Last month, U.S. customers snatched up all 500 MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Editions within hours of its reveal at the Chicago Auto Show.