BUILDING MAZDA'S IDENTITY KEY TO TURNAROUND PLANS SPOTLIGHT FALLS ON HAKUHODO AS CARMAKER'S SOLE AGENCY

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Mazda Motor Corp., under former Ford executive Henry D.G. Wallace, is moving aggressively to build a distinctive brand image. Mr. Wallace, who takes over as president this summer, pledges that his first priority is to "establish and maintain a very strong corporate identity for Mazda worldwide."

With this in mind, Mazda recently selected Hakuhodo, Tokyo, as its single advertising agency and marketing partner.

This U.S.-style arrangement reflects the growing influence of Ford Motor Co. thinking at Mazda. In April, Ford announced it would raise its stake in the Japanese firm to 33.4%.

The move also shows dissatisfaction with business as usual: Mazda's home-market sales tumbled nearly 40% in six years-from a peak of 601,824 units in 1990 to 366,005 in 1995. Exports did even worse, dropping 47% from 833,846 in 1990 to 440,392 last year.

The bitter reality for Japan's No. 4 carmaker is that globally "the general public has no brand image of Mazda," said Ronald J. Leicht, another transplant from Ford, now Mazda's senior managing director in charge of marketing.

BEST `UNKNOWN' PRODUCTS

"It's a matter of our identity," he adds. "We have some of the best unknown products in the world. Our share will go up dramatically if people just know they are available." So Mazda is launching a major effort to build an identity, primarily in Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

Mazda chose Hakuhodo after a U.S.-style review of several agencies-a process foreign to the Japanese way of doing business. In Japan, an agency is treated as a supplier rather than a marketing partner, according to Mr. Leicht. In the past, Mazda worked with four agencies, including Hakuhodo and Dentsu.

Before making its selection, Mazda asked several former agencies for "pretesting" on all its ad campaigns-research that would show how the public would respond to each ad before that ad was broadcast. The request clearly was "not a thing they were used to," Mr. Leicht said.

In another major switch from traditional Japanese practices, Mazda plans to spread the same brand message in all markets through local campaigns. Early moves toward brand-building include giving signage and promotional materials a consistent look across all models.

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