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MINI-DRESSING TABLES AND COOKIES

Automakers get in touch with their feminine side

Automakers used to think cars in pastel colors with floral-patterned seats were key to attracting female buyers.

But the battle to win over women has become more intense: one company has female employees designing a new car; another has launched a sales campaign targeting women and a third has a working group looking at overall strategy.

“What makes women feel happy differs from what makes men feel happy,” said Tamiyo Takabe, one of four female concept planners at Mazda Motor Corp. She was in charge of initial planning for the Verisa compact, released in June.

“Take what women find pleasurable in driving. They want to feel reassured that they can drive and park smoothly,” while men tend to want high performance, Takabe said.

Although the Verisa is being sold to both sexes, Takabe’s participation has made the new high-grade compact more appealing to women, the firm said.

One special feature of the Verisa is a mini-dressing table, mirror and small lamp in the glove compartment, making it easy for women to put on their makeup in the car.

Since cars typically only have small mirrors on the sun visors, the idea of installing the extra gadgets would have never come out without a female concept planner involved, Mazda spokeswoman Mayumi Handa said.

Mazda said it has been looking at ideas submitted by female employees for several years.

In November 1999, an informal group open to all female workers was started to discuss the needs of female drivers.

In January 2003, a special three-woman marketing team was formed.

These moves reflect the major changes taking place in the market.

Men have long been the auto industry’s main customers. But as figures now show, winning the hearts of women, both drivers and passengers, is becoming increasingly important.

The number of licensed female drivers in 2003 stood at 32,681,581, up 43 percent from 1990, against a 18 percent increase in male drivers, according to the National Police Agency. Women now account for 42 percent of all license holders.

Women are also influential when it comes to buying the car for the home.

According to a February survey conducted by marketing firm HerStory Co., nearly 40 percent of 486 married couples who bought cars in the last three years said the choice was made by the wife.

Toyota Motor Corp. takes a different approach from Mazda.

“As long as we meet the needs of our customers, whether female workers participate in development does not really mean much,” Toyota spokesman Kazuhiko Ohora said.

Although development of the new Passo compact involved no female employees, 60 percent of the 25,000 orders in the first month from June were from women, he said.

Toyota has chosen to focus on wooing female customers at its 1,500 Toyota Corolla dealerships.

The automaker launched the Hello Lady Project in January. Female customers are greeted with cookies and can enter a contest by voting for their favorite color of Passo. Toyota hopes the campaign will increase the number of female visitors from 30 percent to 40 percent.

“We wanted to have the dealerships create an atmosphere that can attract more female customers” who normally wouldn’t drop by car showrooms, Ohora said.

Nissan Motor Co. is taking a more basic approach.

Concerned that Nissan cars do not appeal to women, the firm set up an interdepartmental team in November in which employees from different sections discuss ways to attract female customers, from vehicle development to sales strategies.

The 21-member team includes 12 women. It is the only one of 14 interdepartmental teams that has more than two women.

In June, the group proposed to President Carlos Ghosn that Nissan set up a diversity development office in the personnel section to encourage better use of female staff. The office will open in October.

“We believe that increasing the number of female workers and better utilizing them will eventually affect our business in a good way,” said Noriko Nomura, a team member.

Women account for only 1.5 percent of Nissan’s 2,400 managers.

The new office will look at what the company needs and take measures to improve the situation, she said.

Kazuhiko Ichihashi, owner of the marketing company Bridgeman Co., said automakers serious about attracting female customers are still a minority in the male-dominated industry.

“Automakers that successfully position themselves as attractive to women will be able to increase their competitiveness,” he said.

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