Rivals spur Mazda Protege into high gear

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After posting healthy sales increases for its Protege compact, Mazda North American Operations breaks new advertising next week in the face of competitive challenges.

Protege was up 18.8%, to 48,876 vehicles, through the first eight months compared with last year, making it one of the few compacts outside Volkswagen of America's hot-selling Beetle to rack up double-digit gains.

A 30-second spot called "Wall Street" continues Mazda's strategy of marketing directly to women, a key component of its sales increase, said Ron Neale, director of marketing operations.

Spending will be "slightly higher" than the Protege ad budget for 1998, Mr. Neale said. Protege spending was $34.4 million in measured media, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Doner, Southfield, Mich., is the agency.

"The segment has a lot of female drivers, and we went at them directly," the executive said. "There may be some hesitancy to feature women in an advertisement, but we chose to do that [and] we saw our numbers move."

The media schedule includes spot TV, women's magazines and a heavy Web presence, he said. Network TV will follow.

CD PLAYER IS KEY

Mr. Neale said having a CD player as standard equipment is a key selling point for the Protege.

"To our target, young people, we think it's something they value," he said. "Music is a big part of their lives and we provide them with that. A CD player in this segment is perceived as something of a luxury."

Jeff Schuster, manager of forecasting and product planning at consultancy J.D. Power & Associates, believes Mazda will have a tough time maintaining its sales momentum.

The Protege redesign was well-timed, coming when key rivals were a year away from bringing out new models, Mr. Schuster noted. But now the Ford Focus and Toyota Echo have been introduced, making the competitive landscape rockier.

"I would suspect that when you see [sales of] those two models come in, you're really going to see a dip in Protege," he said.

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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