With Hyundai Sonata, If At First They Don't Bite, Bait The Hook A Bit

The 2015 Hyundai Sonata, seriously redesigned, has gotten its share of mixed reviews from dealers, buff books and consumers, who have opined that, while the car may be highly competitive in terms of its features, amenities and technological refinements, it has lost one striking differentiator: its looks. Now, they say, it is not all that different, from the aesthetic point of view, from the competitive set. 

The car was radically redesigned toward a good strategy: Hyundai has been moving up market with vehicles like Genesis and Equus, so it makes sense to make Sonata more "European" in appearance, meaning a sleeker flank, a bit less flamboyance, and a bit of a stiff upper lip, to steal brazenly from Jaguar's campaign (and probably AC/DC). It's a "modern premium" look, meant to position it against entry-luxury intenders. Hyundai calls it Fluidic Sculpture 2.0. 

But it’s a brutal market, and while Hyundai moved Sonata away from the late model's aggressive design statement to a conservative (or subtle, depending on your point of view) look, rival Toyota moved in the opposite direction, making a much bigger design statement with the 2015 Camry. That car debuted in September, and dealers are spending $1 billion toward facility upgrades to support the new car and what it represents. 

I remember seeing the two at the New York auto show and thinking the Sonata and Camry would either collide or pass each other in the stylistic night, neither the wiser. Well, sales have not been great yet on Sonata, so it might have been a collision. 

Last month, Hyundai Motor America sales volume dropped from 53,551 to 50,081, while the industry improved 6%. Sales of Sonata, which launched this summer, were down 25%. What gives? It could be a lot of issues, but research firm Millward Brown Digital has some new data showing some "why" under the numbers. And the firm suggests a kick-start. 

The firm compared monthly demand and retail conversion for the Hyundai mid-size sedan versus Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, and found that Sonata lags in both demand (measured via online shoppers using third-party sites like and and retail conversion.

As Millward Brown notes, a lack of demand means a brand should shift focus to marketing. A lack of conversion requires a transfusion of incentives and inventory. 

The firm saidSonata’s average demand of 67,000 shoppers per month trailed all rivals with the exception of Altima. But, "if Sonata maintains the same level of conversion (26.1%) and increases demand to around 100,000 shoppers, it could improve sales by almost 10,000 units monthly."

How to do that? Build marketing communications to grab spillover demand from rivals. Millward Brown says even barring any structural changes Hyundai puts in place for boosting demand and conversion, simply increasing product inventory, and a decrease in rivals' incentive spending will go a long way to achieving that. The firm cites Autodata numbers to prove its point: Accord incentives were $2,943 in August and helped drive Accord sales to 50,000 units as Toyota was launching Camry. Don't scoff at strategic cash offers. 

Millward Brown also suggests Hyundai open the purse for media spend to drive spillover demand from competitors. In other words, generate more shoppers through increased cross-shopping from competitors’ vehicles. And keep inventory levels high enough to meet demand; and put some cash on some hoods. Year-end incentives won't put coal in your stocking unless incentives are all you have. That's being naughty.

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