Embracing innovation: Case study

Inside high: Mazda’s Seita Kanai on innovation and branding strategies

Embracing innovation

How does a manufacturer with a smaller sales volume than its peers compete in the global innovation stakes? We asked Seita Kanai, Representative Director and Executive Vice President at Mazda Motor Corporation and a key figure in the automaker’s monozukuri innovation strategies, to discuss balancing new technology development with cost considerations and changing customer demands.

Perhaps surprisingly, staying competitive in a tough global market begins with a longer planning horizon than many business leaders would consider possible, given accelerated technology cycles. Most of the technology in new cars today, Kanai believes, can be overtaken in about three years.

“Even if we established a goal three years in advance, everyone would gather reasons as to why they would not be able to meet it, and declare their inability to carry it through. In actual fact, they would probably not be able to do it. However, if it were six years in advance, we would also attempt to undertake projects that we do not know we would succeed at until we try. In two and a half to three years, we can terminate the attempt if it appears to be failing.” Kanai continued, “If it goes well, the start line would have shifted forward significantly at that point in time. After that, we would only need to succeed in mass production.”

So given the challenge of fast-moving customer demands and a longer product cycle for new models, how does Mazda gear up to compete with larger rivals? Kanai, an avid baseball fan, describes a “strike zone” mind-set. Strong brands will attempt to capture the centre, but Mazda knows it must aim differently and has been successful doing so.

“The markets, segments and eras that we produce our products in are the elements that contribute to changes in the strike zone,” Kanai said. “For instance, the strike zones for sports cars and the B-cars, and on top of that the so-called minivans, are different in Japan, the US and Europe. So too for emerging economies and developed countries. It is also different today compared with 10 years ago. It moves and evolves.”

Kanai concluded that he is confident as he prepares to pitch his fastball. “Larger automakers can and do aim for the centre of the strike zone. Yet if we first took aim at the same course and threw, it would not enable the customer to find a reason to buy a Mazda. Too much competition. That is why Mazda does not aim for the centre, but shifts away from it. All Mazda cars must be distanced from this vector, rather than be in the centre of the market. Where do we target? Inside high.”