Born to ‘Feel Alive’: 5 Questions With Mazda CMO Dino Bernacchi


Mazda "Feel Alive" brand platform 2018

Dino Bernacchi arrived at his new job as chief marketing officer for Mazda North America last year to find a brand that was repositioning to become more premium. While restyling its well-balanced lineup of sporty sedans and utility vehicles and providing more premium features, design and performance, it was still mid-stream in its efforts to climb from a 2% share of U.S. vehicle purchases.

The result of Bernacchi’s subsequent research is now unfolding in a new brand platform called “Feel Alive,” with inspirational messaging highlighting Mazda’s drivers and the improved Mazda experience. It’s also elevating its commitment to design (such as the Japanese-inspired Kodo design of the new CX-3), quality and the experience of driving.

The first ad was released on April 2nd during the NCAA college basketball championship game. It’s light on vehicle and driving images, but packed with passion, to build an emotional connection with fans by making them feel something profound.

“We wanted to clarify who are the fans of the brand today and tomorrow,” Bernacchi told brandchannel. “And we wanted to fortify the brand in our messaging. I didn’t come here to change the brand but to excavate and elevate important components of the brand to leverage.”

As part of his overhaul, Bernacchi said he “looked at brands these consumers really care about: Nike, Apple, Under Armor, Google, Nordstrom. Those brands actually elevated to the status that, ‘I’m buying into that brand because of what they stand for and represent. And so I’m going to explore their products more.’ There’s more of an emotional connection.”

Go forth into the unknown, brave traveler. #MazdaCX3

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Bernacchi said that in addition to new messaging, he’s using data, research and analytics to help refine targeting: “We had taken the traditional approach with TV advertising and shouting into the digital landscape. But there are great targeting capabilities out there to personalize messaging to get to the individuals we want to.”

The new brand platform includes unexpected partnerships and integrations with innovative brands like Amazon, a new relationship “based on a fresh approach to fan communities and leveraging Amazon as a social channel versus an e-commerce tool.”

So last month, after a two-week journey from Hiroshima, Japan, more than 800 2018 Mazda6’s touched down in Washington state, where three lucky Mazda fans were the first in the U.S. to drive the redesigned and re-engineered 2018 Mazda6.

Mazda Chief Marketing Officer Dino Bernacchi“Amazon is consumer-focused, data-driven and very well-aligned with our new brand platform,” Bernacchi (right) stated. “We have a vocal and growing community of Mazda fans and owners on Amazon and we want to support that community with the same energy and attention we give to our other social communities like Facebook and YouTube.”

It’s an opportune year for Mazda to re-energize its brand and become more fan-first in its marketing communications and programs. Upgraded versions of its CX-5 crossover and Mazda6 sedan are in the market but “we are leaning forward in the coming year to the seventh generation of our vehicles. This is a perfect time to seed the [brand platform] and evolve it.”

Bernacchi shared more about the transformation of the Mazda brand in a Q&A:

Before we get into the evolution of Mazda, let’s start with your evolution as a CMO. How did you get here?

I grew up in Detroit in a non-automotive family. I went to the University of Detroit and worked for General Motors for 10 years, much of it with Pontiac. Then I moved into a corporate job of media strategy and branded entertainment. Then I worked for Harley-Davidson and helped them reach millennials. It was truly about being consumer-led, about bringing modernity to the brand and having a right way to bring it to a younger audience. Then I joined Mazda.

What’s been the response so far to “Feel Alive”?  

We’ve had an immediate positive response. The research we did beforehand showed the emotional impact on the target audience we’re going after. We have seen some positive results through interest and intent measures. Google search terms for Mazda overall  were up 24% in April and unique visitors to our website up 30%, and when we get to leads (and) quote requests for vehicles, they were up 82%. Anecdotally, I’ve gotten some really nice feedback that it’s really different for the industry and for Mazda and something that builds inspiration. That’s one thing that really stood out, especially for the audience we’re going after.

And what audience, specifically, are you going after?

If you want to be consumer-led, you have got to talk with individual people. We used Kantar [Reseach] throughout the course of [2017 to conduct] 11 studies and spoke to more than 4,000 people, fans and potential fans. They’re younger, more affluent, better educated, a bit more diverse and with the propensity for more premium products than who Mazda previously was targeting. And we looked not just at auto brands but other brands they had an affinity for, and dug into why.

Kantar also helped us explore elements of our company that are differentiated. We also looked at the category: What’s out there today and how are different brands communicating? And we identified the customer who would gravitate toward our brands and the characteristics we represent. We also looked at the culture that impacts the customer we were going after.

Part of the brand refresh campaign involves engaging fans via Amazon. Why is that a key element?

One of the things regarding the target audience we’re going after is they’re really into what others are saying about your brand. This audience is really looking for experiences. They want to really dive into a brand, not just buy it; they want to bite into a brand. Understanding that brand reflects who they are is critical. The second thing we’ve started to learn is social and cultural relevance is important to this audience.

Amazon has more than two million Mazda owners in their database with an average rating of Mazda6 in 2016 and 2017 as a five-star. People are going to Amazon to see what their impressions of the brand are. We have so many great reviews. That is a social media network, whether people want to agree with that or not. How do we engage with these fans and leverage the power of what they’re saying about our brand amongst others? We have an Amazon consumer hub and will be leveraging powerful things that are being said on our site and in social spaces.

Mazda spent decades making its brand in North America about quick vehicles and the excitement of driving with “Zoom zoom” and then more recently in Skyactive, the technology package that makes Mazda vehicles lighter, yet more durable and more fuel-efficient. How do you reconcile all of this with “Feel Alive”?

We want Mazda to be a driver’s car, about excitement, but the ad doesn’t show off styling or cars or fun, really. We could have just gone straight at it with straight-up car footage but these individuals (in Mazda’s target audience) want to connect with the brand.

We’re already a driver’s car but people want something more. What is it that this company is standing for? Cars are included. We saw a 200-to-300% lift in interest in Mazda6 just from that one brand ad.

But now they’re interested in what “brand” stands for. Driving is important but the brand promise of literally heightening people’s state of being and making them feel more alive is equally important.

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