Kia Going Beyond Vanilla With New Optima

Kia is gearing up for the all-new Optima, competing in the daunting mid-sized car market. The company is going to market the car as much for the way it looks as what it can do and how many golf bags or strollers you can fit in the trunk.

For Kia, which introduced the car at the New York Auto Show this year, the new Optima represents the next expression of its two-year-old push to become an automaker known as much for the way its vehicles look as for its value. "We have been going through this design transformation for the last 18 months, starting with Soul, then Forte and the Forte Coupe, Sorento and the new Sportage" says Michael Sprague, VP marketing at the Irvine, Calif.-based company.

Kia, which decided to look to the European market for inspiration around 2005, hired long-time VW and Audi design guru Peter Schreyer in 2006, then opened the Kia Motors Design Center America in 2008.

Sprague says Kia's design advances under Schreyer's tutelage will make Optima a standout in the 1.7 million-unit, mid-sized market versus vehicles like Accord, Camry and Fusion. "We are likening it to the launch of the Sorento [SUV], our largest launch. We are taking the playbook we did with Sorento and using it as a framework."



The effort will be a two-phase campaign, the first starting in November and the second in February. The November program will center on an in-cinema, 60-second spot timed with the pre-Christmas season. "We estimate it will hit 70-plus million consumers," says Sprague. "It will be a brand message, entertaining, and, of course, highlighting the car. The creative has been approved and production starts in a couple of weeks."

Kia will also spotlight the car during NBA Tip-Off week as part of its sponsorship of the league. The Web-focused target will influence Kia's media buy, which will include TV, per Sprague. The second phase in February will include a new brand spot and digital creative focused on vehicle specs.

Optima has an opportunity because consumers in the mid-sized car segment are conditioned to expect that they come in one flavor -- vanilla. Thus, says Sprague, the new Optima will stand out. "Lots of people buy on reliability and dependability. But our research shows that the only significant reason that styling hasn't been just as important is because until now there has not been a design-centered focus."

Sprague says Kia marketers were surprised on a couple of points when the company reviewed its own market research on the car. First, people found that Optima had a "distinct point of view," he says.

Also, the perception of the Kia brand itself has evolved, tracking visual changes evinced by the products. "We have won consumer clinics on vehicle impression in the past but then our scores would actually drop a bit when we revealed the Kia badge. Recently, we saw that we won on initial impressions and then when we revealed the Kia badge, our scores actually improved. We are changing peoples' opinion of the brand because of the new products we have brought out in the past 18 months."

The target for the car is a cohort of Gen X-ers (35-49) sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials that the company is calling "wikis" -- a term Sprague says refers both to the Internet social platform and a Hawaiian term for "hurry, hurry." "They are self-sufficient, self-reliant, and approach life more pragmatically.

"This is probably their first time buying a car in this segment," says Sprague. "With Sorento, we were targeting families with young kids; in this case, they might have kids who are in school. And they are very much into technology -- very active socially."

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