OK, since my last UVP post made a not-so-flattering comment about Mazda’s rotary engine (one of the few, truly unique power plants in auto manufacturing today), I felt it would only be right to balance things out, with a pro-rotary comment or two.

And as luck would have it, I stumbled upon the perfect pro-rotary video that was also a remarkable  example of what I had previously referred to as Romancing the Stone:

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The rotary engine features prominently in the video, starting at the 1:12 mark and going through to (arguably) the 2:08 mark. But here’s the thing:

Even the parts about the Rotary Engine aren’t really about just the engine.

The rotary engine and its role in Mazda’s win at Le Mans is only taken as a tangible example of something more powerful. It’s the romance woven around the attitude behind a company that would produce that engine that matters.

The sentiment of “we don’t do business as usual” and “we go our own way; we’re a different breed” — that’s what the commercial is about. And they are anchoring that bit of romance to reality through the historical bombing of Hiroshima and the company’s extraordinary and ballsy development of the first mass-scale production rotary engine for cars.

If you’re not familiar with the story behind Mazda’s rotary engine, here’s a touch of that history, as told by Motor Trend:

Back in the late 1950s, Mazda was a small-scale company with no real standout cars and a weak brand identity. Company bosses were looking for a signature engine to help lift the brand out of obscurity and saw great potential in a revolutionary new engine — the rotary — invented by self-taught German engineer Felix Wankel in 1957 with technical assistance from motorcycle manufacturer NSU. Even though several carmakers, including Mazda, paid Wankel for the rights to exploit this new technology and form tie-ups with NSU, they all ran into the same problems. The seals on the edges of the rotors didn’t last, leading to a “chatter mark” phenomenon in which wavy traces of abnormal wear appeared on the rotor housing. As the seals wore, power fell while mileage and emissions rose.

Everyone but Mazda quit. The company poured large R&D sums into solving the problem, until, as the story goes, one day an engineer inadvertently focused on the carbon at the end of his pencil and came up with the idea of carbon seals. One engineer we spoke to said that he “just liked the way that every part in a rotary engine moves in a circle and keeps rotating in the same direction,” unlike a reciprocating engine whose internal action places tremendous stress on parts such as the crankshaft.

With the help of companies like Nippon Piston Ring Co., Mazda developed highly durable carbon-based apex seals, boasting technology that was some of the most advanced of its kind at the time… [Emphasis mine]

Great story and a great company. But the ad really can’t just be about the Rotary, because, well, the Rotary Engine ain’t doing so well these days. Mazda’s RX-8 is selling in very low numbers, and failed it’s European emissions tests, and Mazda has no concrete plans for the Rotary Engine itself as they move forward.

What the ad has to really be about is Shared Values and Shared Emotional Connection. That every Mazda has the same spirit that powered the engineers who made the rotary engine a reality — even if the car itself isn’t powered by a rotary.

And, no, this isn’t a situation unique to Mazda.

Clients say, “I’m different because X” and it often turns out that X doesn’t actually answer a question anyone was asking.  X provides no objectively real value to the customer. So, you either have to ditch X as a part of your advertising altogether (which is usually the best bet), or you need to find a way to make X matter. Sometimes X doesn’t matter, but the philosophy behind it does.

That’s what Romancing the Stone is all about.



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