Kia's Moving On Up

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Kia unveiled a luxury car, the Cadenza, during the Detroit International Auto Show this week. The car belies, to some extent, the idea that Kia and Hyundai work together to stay in their swim lanes, a term former GM marketing chief Joel Ewanick used (and maybe coined) to describe how GM brands stay away from each other. Parenthetically, a lot of Ewanick's moves have turned out to be pretty smart, such as his deal with Manchester United that put the Chevrolet brand on team jerseys. 

Michael Sprague, who heads Kia marketing in the U.S., has said that the two brands actually compete with each other. Kia is in the midst of an aggressive, portfolio-expanding launch cycle – nine products since 2009 and seven more in the next year or so. Deliberately staying down-market from corporate sibling Hyundai to keep out of its sandbox certainly wouldn’t help Kia as it would limit its efforts to move up. Sprague says the ongoing challenge is, in fact, to convince people that Kia is no longer a "value" brand but a valuable brand. 

Then there's the curious case of the Forte, which (re)launches in March. The first version of the vehicle, which replaced the Spectra in 2009, came out just before Cash For Clunkers. Sprague says the government's effort to kick-start the economy totally derailed marketing plans, notes Sprague. 

"Cash for Clunkers took over everything, but it turned out to be great for Kia. Unfortunately, Forte got lost, so this year we have big plans for it," he says. The automaker is again in the Super Bowl, this time with two spots, one 60-second ad for the Sorento SUV and a 30-second ad for Forte. Sprague says technology -- particularly Kia's smartphone-based UVO telematics and infotainment system (launched two years ago at CES) -- will be a big theme for the sub-compact, to which Kia is hoping to attract younger buyers. 

"All of our metrics since December 2008 are up. We compare ourselves to other Asian brands, and VW and, versus a lot of brands, we are in a good place but not where we want to be. But we need to raise awareness and consideration for the brand. We have only 3.9% of market share now, but we are raising brand value to new levels with design, fuel economy, and technology," he says. "And we are seeing a downward shift in age and upward shift in income and education, and the Kia brand overall is something people are proud of. They park it on the street, instead of hiding it in the garage." 

Sprague concedes that changing brand perception and boosting brand awareness is an ongoing task (something the domestics struggled to do for years). Kia is continuing sponsorship of the Ladies Professional Golf Association for the 2013 golf season, although Kia won't be doing ads this year featuring spokesperson and pro player Michelle Wie, "only because we have so much going on," he says. The Optima continues as official auto vehicle of the NBA this year. And, per Sprague, Kia will continue its partnership with the NBC show "The Voice" for which Kia last year featured Sorento.

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