Sunday, September 7, 2014

A failure of corporate communication

This post is completely off-topic, but I can't resist. I hope you won't mind too much.

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, he recounts Jobs' having told him that the one industry he would most like to have worked in, if not computers, was the automotive industry. Today I watched the online video of the unveiling ceremony for Mazda's 25th-Anniversary MX-5 Miata (, and I was struck by how very much Mazda needs the ghost of Steve Jobs.

For several years during grad school, I drove a cherry-red 1990 Miata. It was the best car I've ever owned, a sheer joy to drive. I miss that car like an old lover.

It's a common experience. The Miata inspires love in its customers like few products except those made by Apple. Like an iPhone, it's not bare-bones practical — its selling points are style and fun. The Miata makes you want to drive it, and any other car is disappointing. A new edition of the Miata is anticipated by its fan base with the same excitement as a new iPhone.

So it was that Mazda prepared an unveiling ceremony clearly inspired by Jobs' keynote speeches. Except that they did almost everything wrong.

First there was the introduction. The designer who did the presentation seemed almost to be downplaying the greatness of the achievement that was the first Miata. In a risky and daring business move, Mazda revived a category that had been dead for ten years. Roadsters were considered a low-volume, no-profit niche market, yet Mazda sold millions. They were the low-cost tail that wagged such giant dogs and Porsche and BMW. It was an act of scrappy corporate audacity on par with the first iPhone.

Mazda's presentation said some of those things, but in such a jumbled-up, understated way that the message had almost no impact.

There was a nice little video, reasonably well-done, at the end of which the car quickly rolled onstage. Too quickly: there was no build-up, no drama, no music. Just a few puffs of smoke from the sides. In fact, the sound was still on the video, so you couldn't even hear the car!

If you're not a Miata fan, you might not be horrified by this omission, but the sound of the Miata is one of its major selling-points. Mazda spent countless dollars and man-hours into carefully engineering a satisfying exhaust rumble in the first-edition Miata. It's one of those perfect, Steve Jobs-like details that make the Miata such a full-body joy to drive. So it's a dreadful failure of communication to have the new edition of the car roll onstage in silence.

Once the car was there, the designer went on to show off the new look. This is the part I had been looking forward to, because I'd already seen some great-looking photos here:

This car was designed to be aggressive, where the first-generation Miata was bubbly. It's been aptly described as looking like a Maserati. The front end is low and wide, like a race car on the track. It looks fast and hot. It makes all the testosterone in your blood sing like a tuning fork. One look, and I felt an irresistible compulsion to be the one behind the wheel.

In the entire 23-minute video, there was not one single shot of the car from the front.

The interior of the car looks to be yet another design masterpiece. It's a gorgeous steampunk union of pre-computer-era knobs and dials with slick high-tech chrome-on-black style. The short-throw shifter in the middle speaks of control, responsiveness, and twisty, wind-whipped mountain roads. The palm of my right hand longed to rock-solid snicker-snack Miata shifting. The calves of both legs felt chills anticipating lightning-fast clutching.

There was not one single shot of the interior. The designer hosting the unveiling ceremony spoke in adjective-rich prose about the beauty and attention to detail Mazda had invested in the interior of the car, but he did not show it. Not once.

The car got driven onto the stage, presumably to show that it did in fact have an engine, but otherwise it sat static throughout the demo. There wasn't a turnstile to show it from different angles, nor did it move around at all. There was no video of the new Miata, only the intro video showing older generations. Even the driver seemed awkwardly immobile. This aggressive-looking, nimble little car looked stuck in mud.

Half the unveiling was spent on a concert by Duran Duran. I suppose this is appropriate to the Miata's sales demographic, but if I were planning the event I'd have skewed a little younger. The whole point of a car like this is to make people feel just a little younger than we are. Perhaps Duran Duran was supposed to remind us of our youth, but to me it was just a reminder of aging. The band has lost a lot of the spring from their step. They had an almost perplexed look about them, as if they, too, we wondering why they were there.

None of their songs had any obvious connection to the car, which sat forgotten on the opposite side of the stage. Rather than take the opportunity to cut away to exciting footage of the new Miata zooming down the road, the producers stayed glued to the aging rockers for a dozen long minutes.

I haven't been so disappointed in the work of a highly-paid, supposedly professional communicator since — well, now that I think about it, the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. If you wanted to un-sell a car, Mazda just provided a great example of how to do it.

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