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Why is Mazda so popular in Australia but outsold by Citroen in the UK? Secrets of success for Australia's number two car brand

Strong product is credited as one of the reasons for Mazda’s sales success in Australia.

The Australian new-car market is one of the most competitive in the world, with more than 45 brands vying for a slice of about one million sales a year.

To be successful, automotive brands have to connect with a broad customer base. The top brands in the country have a relatively diverse model line-up, covering SUVs, passenger cars and light commercials, with model grades that appeal to budget conscious buyers and people with a bit more cash to splash. Think Toyota, Mazda, Hyundai, Ford, Kia, Volkswagen and more.

Out of all of these top brands, it’s perhaps Mazda’s success in Australia that is the most surprising, especially when you look at its sales in other major international markets. More on that in a bit.

Mazda Australia marketing director Alastair Doak told CarsGuide that the Japanese brand’s sales success Down Under doesn’t come down to one specific thing. Rather, a combination of factors have elevated Mazda to Australia’s number two car brand.

“Part of it is history. We have been here since the first Mazda arrived in 1959 in Western Australia. That level of familiarity and exposure to our brand, for many many years, that gives you that comfort level. You know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who has owned a Mazda and had a good experience,” he said.

Mr Doak said Mazda had a “consistency of vision” from local management over the years. Some of whom only recently retired after being with the company since it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Mazda Corporation back in 1986. He added that a strong relationship with dealers and a significant focus on customer relations has been key to the brand’s success.

One of the more obvious factors is Australian buyers’ connection to Mazda’s product over the years.

“The product has always appealed to Australians, whether it’s the size or look or performance of it. I think Mazda product has always been more engaging at all of those levels than some of the competitors. Mazda has always been an engineering-led company. They have always marched to the beat of their own tune in a lot of ways, obviously rotary is an example, MX-5, even Eunos when we did that was an example.”

The first-generation Mazda6 was part of a new model onslaught that changed Mazda's fortunes in Australia. The first-generation Mazda6 was part of a new model onslaught that changed Mazda's fortunes in Australia.

Mazda has steadily built its sales in Australia, but the early 2000s proved to be a time of rapid growth. This was on the back of a shift from models like the 121, 323 and 626 to the first-generation versions of the Mazda2, Mazda3 and Mazda6 that led a product renaissance.

Mr Doak refers to the models of this period, including the iconic rotary-powered RX-8 sports car, as the ‘Zoom Zoom’ product, referencing the marketing tagline that was introduced around the same time. He also credited the Tribute SUV – one of the first models in the emerging segment – as helping to boost Mazda’s fortunes.

How’s this for a trajectory? Back in 2000, Mazda sold a total of 26,690 vehicles in Australia. That put it in eighth place for the year behind Honda, but just in front of Subaru and the now defunct Korean manufacturer, Daewoo.

The RX-8 was another 'Zoom Zoom' era model that gave the brand a boost. The RX-8 was another 'Zoom Zoom' era model that gave the brand a boost.

Jump to 2010, and Mazda was riding a wave of popularity on the back of the second-gen versions of the Mazda2, 3 and 6, as well as new SUV models, the CX-7 and CX-9. Mazda recorded 84,777 sales in 2010, enough to push into fourth place behind Toyota, Holden and Ford, and about 4000 sales ahead of Hyundai.

The early 2010s saw more new models and further enhancement of the Mazda brand. The original CX-5 from 2012 struck a chord with Aussie buyers and it quickly became the top-selling SUV in the country, ahead of the Hyundai ix35 and Toyota RAV4.

Last year Mazda finished second with 85,640 sales, about 120,000 units behind market leader Toyota but more than 20,000 ahead of third-placed Hyundai. Like all other brands in last year’s top 10, Mazda experienced a pandemic-related sales dip. It was down 12.3 per cent compared to 2019.

So far this year Mazda has increased its sales by 38 per cent over January to September 2020, and it’s sitting on 83,565 – almost 30,000 units ahead of Ford which is just 100 units ahead of Hyundai in fourth.

The CX-5 SUV is the top-selling model in Mazda's range so far this year. The CX-5 SUV is the top-selling model in Mazda's range so far this year.

In other countries, Mazda’s market reach is nowhere near that of Australia. In fact, you could say the number two car brand Down Under is an also-ran in some markets.

In its home market of Japan, Mazda ended last year in sixth place, nearly 300,000 units behind fifth-placed Nissan. It was also comfortably outsold by Toyota, Suzuki, Honda and Daihatsu. The only major Japanese manufacturers it beat were Subaru and Mitsubishi. Not one of its models was in the top 15 best sellers. Mazda landed in the same spot and outsold Subaru and Mitsubishi 10 years earlier in 2010.

In the United States Mazda is well down the list of brands by sales. In 2020 it recorded 279,076 sales, which is a lot compared with Australia, but it was outsold by Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Honda and more. However, Mazda’s US sales have shot up by about 40 per cent so far this year.

The United Kingdom is not a strong market for Mazda either. It placed 20th in the UK last year with sales of just 22,742. Compare that with Ford UK’s 150,000-plus haul. It was behind brands that are seen as niche in Australia, like Citroen, Mini, Seat and Volvo, and it recorded less than half the sales of Hyundai. It fared a little better back in 2010, with 45,000 sales and placing 16th.

Mr Doak said it was difficult to say why Mazda has a larger share in some markets than others, but added that there were usually historic reasons for it.

“If you don’t get all of the elements right, that can really throw you off. For Europe, that whole market is very European-model focused. It can be difficult for smaller brands to make a mark.”

However, Mr Doak said Mazda punches above its weight in countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, Colombia and Mexico.

Globally, Mazda sold 1,243,005 vehicles last year, a 17 per cent dip compared with 2019. This is also a drop from 10 years ago in 2010 when it found homes for 1.3 million vehicles.

Mazda Australia convinced its Japanese parent company to green light a new-generation BT-50, with a new partner. Mazda Australia convinced its Japanese parent company to green light a new-generation BT-50, with a new partner.

Mr Doak said the local operation’s relative success had given Mazda Australia a “seat at the table at Mazda headquarters on many, many things”.

“Brand direction, product direction, sales process, distribution models, everything you can think of, we usually get an invite – ‘what does Mazda Australia think of that or what is Mazda Australia doing?’

“It’s a very powerful position to be in because you can influence, as much as you can, that global direction. We have a direct line of communication with the most senior people at Mazda Corporation, which is good. We do everything in our power to make sure we are contributing to that because we know that’s a very precious thing we have to nurture and use very wisely.”

As an example, Mr Doak highlighted the case Mazda Australia’s lobbying for a new-generation BT-50 ute following the end of Mazda’s collaboration with Ford.

“We are the number one market for BT-50 globally. We had the conversation with our bosses in Japan and convinced them that it was the right thing to do and you should go and find a new partner (Isuzu) and bring that model to market and that’s what happened.”

In terms of maintaining that success into the future, Mr Doak said it was all about consistency.

“Know who you are, where you want to go. Get the basics right and that’s looking after our customers, making sure we have a very strong, open and collaborative relationship with our dealers. And making sure we bring the most appropriate product to Australia. If we do all those things, you’re well on your way to getting it right. We will continue to focus on those areas as much as we can.”