Hyundai Marketing VP: Sonata's Our Brand's Core

Joel Ewanick

For Hyundai Motor America, this may be the most important year since the company launched in the U.S. some 23 years ago.

Not only is the Fountain Valley, Calif.-based automaker launching its biggest campaign to date for a single model, but that model -- Sonata -- competes in a segment that is both the high-volume region of the car market and the area where a brand's identity can be cemented or shattered.

The company is launching three versions of the car this year, as well as the new Tucson compact utility and its first true luxury sedan, Equus, and early next year the next-generation Elantra compact sedan. It's all part of Hyundai's "24/7" plan to launch seven new models in 24 months. And at least with Sonata, the playing field is clear this year, as nobody else on the horizon is launching a mid-sized car in the U.S. right now. Many automakers are, in fact, cutting marketing budgets after a traumatic 2009.



Sonata is also the second beneficiary of Hyundai's new vehicle-design philosophy, an effort to unify the portfolio under a stylish body design. Hyundai introduced the fluid, sleek look with the higher-end Genesis and Genesis Coupe in 2008 and 2009. Now, as then, the Super Bowl and the Oscars will be the big stages to show off the new car.

Hyundai's VP of marketing, Joel Ewanick, speaks to Marketing Daily about how he's lining up the ducks this year.

Q: What makes Sonata such a key vehicle for Hyundai now?

A: The Genesis and Genesis coupe were halo vehicles that gave us a stronger value proposition around quality, performance and 'fun to drive', but [Sonata] is in the most competitive segment in the industry -- mid-size sedans -- which means it competes against vehicles like Camry, Accord, Malibu, Taurus, and Altima.

Q: But isn't the importance of the mid-size car segment overstated now, given the resurgence of compact cars, mileage concerns, and of course, the ever-expanding crossover market, including compact-crossovers?

A: The compact sedan and mid-size sedans make up over 3 million units -- the bulk of car sales. Toyota sold 435,000 Camrys last year; we sold 130,000 Sonatas. We want that number to go way up; we want to steal market share from the Asians and domestics. We want to see a 35% to 40% uptick in sales this year.

Q: But do mid-sized cars have the same importance in terms defining a car brand that they used to?

A: One of the things we look at is brand essence; we do maps of these things where the core vehicle is in the middle. For a lot of consumers, Toyota is most closely aligned to the Camry -- so brand image is really the Camry. Accord is right in the middle of Honda's brand image. In fact, the mid-size sedan is closely identified with what an auto brand is. And it's no different with Sonata. So when we spend all that time on Sonata, what we are really doing is really communicating what Hyundai is about: it's the core of our brand, the essence of our brand. That's why we are putting so much energy and so much focus on it.

Q: The new Super Bowl ads seem to be a lot about design, not a lot of quick visual cuts -- more of a premium-car feel.

A: Consumers have been saying for years that the cars in this segment don't look that good. They say, "I need practicality and utility, but why can't they make something that looks good?" We are selling styling, but also quality, performance with the car's 200 horsepower, and its 35 mpg, and the under $20,000 price, which we are going to introduce on the Super Bowl.

When you have upwards of 95 million people watching this, you have a huge number of people who are going to buy cars in this category watching. We are trying to make it difficult for them not to consider Sonata when they make that purchase decision. One of the biggest challenges a marketer has is getting moved up in that file drawer of brands in someone's consideration set.

Q: How important are the Super Bowl and Oscars to Sonata and to Hyundai's overall brand marketing plans this year?

A: We can't de-couple the fact that we are on the Super Bowl Feb. 7 and on the Academy Awards on March 7. They have to complement each other. It's a perfect strategy for us to tie those two together, the two largest TV audiences of the year.

We are trying to tell a story to build awareness, and have people reconsider us. Just being in big places is part of that strategy. It's called "big places, big voices" and it's a cornerstone: just telling our story where a whole lot of people gather -- the fact that we are there and a lot of other manufacturers aren't is what it's about in a nutshell.

Between the Super Bowl and Academy Awards we are spending 8% of our total media budget. But there will also be a big media push May through August, then again with September through December for the hybrid version and another Sonata model as well.

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