The Japanese car group is on a sales drive that has zoomed out of left field, says Laura Chesters.
The Japanese car group is on a sales drive that has zoomed out of left field, says Laura Chesters.

So how many Nobel prizes does it take to fill a Mazda?

IN a surreal scene in the grounds of a beautiful park in Warsaw, the former President of Poland and Nobel Peace Laureate Lech Walesa - founder of the Solidarity (Solidarnosc) movement - was holding court with a gaggle of European motoring correspondents and car company executives.

He offered his views on everything from Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost to what is happening in Syria.

The event looked more like a wedding breakfast but was in fact a Japanese car company's chance to show off its latest model and lay out its plans to conquer Europe.

Mazda has only a 1 per cent market share on the Continent, and 1.5 per cent in the UK, despite selling 1.25m cars around the world.

Mazda invited Mr Walesa to speak because it had just unveiled its sponsorship of the Nobel Peace Laureates. But what does a Japanese car company have in common with one of the world's best-known figures from recent European history?

Is this just another PR stunt from a brand?

Jeff Guyton, managing executive officer of Mazda, says not. Sure he wants to sell more cars and sure he wants to market his company, but, he argues: "Without communicating what your company is about - the how and the why - then you just have one event after another."

His intention is to become known as a "challenger" brand. Mazda's philosophy was initiated by the son of its founder, Tsuneji Matsuda, when he refused to obey government plans to merge all small carmakers to make a larger one. He kept the business separate and the "Hiroshima spirit" was forged - to never give up.

The Hiroshima-based brand has a series of new adverts to highlight its reputation as a "challenger". Some will feature Dick Fosbury, who revolutionised the high jumper's technique at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

Mr Guyton said: "Our biggest challenge in Europe is to get to the stage where we become known as an aspirational brand."

He points out that in countries such as Australia it has 10 per cent market share and is highly regarded. "We will get to this level elsewhere. We want to become a stronger brand in Europe."

Carmakers and marketers may have once targeted the UK's Mondeo man, but now this American car executive is hoping he can create Mazda man.

His plan of action in Warsaw's Belvedere restaurant came just ahead of Frankfurt's motor show this week, where he will unveil its latest model - the Mazda 3. But Mr Guyton, formerly a Ford man who has been at the Japanese group since 2000, wants to tell the world just what that "Hiroshima spirit" means.

The business lost money for four years straight during the recent global financial crisis - around €2bn (£1.7bn) in total. It has since reduced costs by being the first car manufacturer to send all its cars down the same production line; new technology means everything from petrol to diesel engines, and from small sports cars to SUVs, all go down the same line.

As a result Mazda has just had its most profitable quarter since 2004. However, the majority of the cars are still made in Japan and this leaves the group exposed to currency fluctuations.

The company has a factory in Russia and will open in Mexico to offset this. But there are no plans for a new European factory - at least not until sales reach well over 200,000, as other-wise it would be unprofitable.

Not all consumers will be swung by its tie-up with Nobel Peace Prize winners or high jumpers, but they might like the sound of a decent, fuel-efficient and "fun" car to drive.

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