What's At Stake When Hyundai Loses Bridges, Gains Rudd

What's in a voice? For automakers, a lot. But let me be clear about something. I don't mean a spokesperson, but a speaksperson: not someone who appears in ads to tout the products, à la Matthew McConaughey and Lincoln, but just the voice in all of the ads. The brand’s voice. 

Hyundai had one of the best and — to my thinking — one of the best ever in Jeff Bridges, though I also liked Gary Sinise, who voiced Cadillac ads back when the tag was "Break Through," and Richard Dreyfus when he was the measured, rational voice of Honda some years ago. 

As we learned on Monday, Bridges is gone, Paul Rudd is in. Rudd is a comic actor whose voice fits the new Hyundai, says Greg Braun, executive creative director at AOR Innocean who told me the agency was involved from the outset. "We have been talking about this for a long time and it's a pretty crucial decision on a lot of levels." I agree, it kind of is. We put a lot of focus on the visuals, obviously, but the voice is really the personality of the brand. Especially when the voice is the opposite of the practiced generic voice of the kind you get with movie-trailer narration. 

So Braun is right. There is a big risk in making a change. But he says Hyundai wanted to change the tone to one with a "youthful feel and energy. Character with character." An interesting question on all of this is whether, when you grab a new voice, people recognize who it is and whether it matters if they do. I hope not, because most people have no idea what Rudd sounds like, and I'll be a lot of people have no idea who he is. Bridges? I loathe this word, but he's kind of an icon. An icon of laid-back, folksy wisdom. We all know which movie created that personality for him. 

But his voice really worked for Hyundai, and the automaker made no bones about who it belonged to. Hyundai even played on the fact that Bridges was up for an Oscar in 2010 (and won it for "Crazy Heart.") During the Oscars, during which Hyundai had seven ads, the company took his voice out and inserted voices from well-known actors like Richard Dreyfus and Kim Basinger and made a bit of theater about the whole thing.  

Braun says it's more important that, whether or not people associate the voice with an actor, the voice and/or actor align with the values of the brand. I would say that most of the time it does a brand no good to use someone recognizable unless it really works in some way. Bridges was great for Hyundai in a lot of ways, but if I had to pick one, it's that Bridges is a star one can imagine living in, say, Salina, Kansas, as well as Hollywood. He "Americanized" Hyundai, which assembles vehicles here, more than just about anything else they could have done. 

Do they still need that voice in a time where most people know that "domestic" doesn't mean too much anymore in a business where Americans make more money from sales outside the U.S., and Asian and European brands build more cars here (and in Mexico and Canada) than American brands do? Anyway, I think it would be next to impossible to find someone else with the same something that Bridges has in that voice of his. Braun says Hyundai isn't looking for that. "Even if people recognize Paul, the important thing is a current, confident, likable, and witty kind of smart."

Here are some other notables with other auto brands in one form or another:

Jon Hamm - recently tapped for Mercedes-Benz

John Cusack - this year replaced Tim Allen as the voice of Chevrolet

Neil Patrick Harris - was the voice of Honda Odyssey and so was Garrison Keillor

Robert Downey, Jr. - started doing the voice for Nissan's "Innovation for All" campaign for the Leaf electric car back in 2010.

Dennis Leary - Ford F-150

Kevin Spacey - Honda (as mentioned, so was Dreyfus)


Since writing this, I have gotten some interesting comments. Mark Weinfeld, former account and planning director at Bates, offered some Hyundai voices from the past: In Hyundai's early years in the late 80's, early 90's it was Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster) for “Cars that Make Sense”; then Sally Kellerman, and in the mid-1990's Jeff Goldblum took over, same tag. Then Peri Gilpin took over in the early millennium. "Those were all from the Bates Advertising days," he says. He rightly notes that Goodby brought in Bridges, and Innocean kept him.  

Second, Randy Parker, senior director of marketing at E-Poll ran numbers from its E-Score Celebrity database. Thirty-one percent of the people surveyed, who know who Bridges is, said he has a “distinctive voice.” "This is pretty high (14% is average for actors)," Parker says. Rudd’s voice is considered distinctive by only 10% of those familiar with him.  On the other hand, Rudd is more appealing to younger demographics and women.  

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