Kia Is On The Road To Reinvention

Korean automaker Kia is on the road to reinvention as a sporty, "driver's car" company.

This week, U.S. executives from Kia are visiting dealers in Orlando, Atlanta and Boston on the first stops of a three-week tour to show off a flurry of new vehicles and hold one-on-one meetings with Kia Motors America EVP and COO Len Hunt, who joined the company a year ago.

Kia, which is owned by Hyundai Motor Co., has more than 600 dealers in the United States. Its new vehicle lineup includes the Rondo crossover, which launches in February. The company brought in consultants several months ago, and is considering a Miata-style sportster, but its existing vehicles do not yet fit the sporty positioning to which the company aspires.

"You don't want to define yourself before you have the products to support that," warned Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, Bandon, Ore.

Kia is currently positioned as a value brand compared to its sibling Hyundai, which once had a somewhat negative perception as a cheaply made car, but has since introduced more premium vehicles and a marketing message that went beyond its warranty.



"The strategies for both brands are diverging," said Ian Beavis, vice president of marketing at Kia Motors America. "We will be a younger brand, more sporty, and more driver-oriented. We have an opportunity to be what Volkswagen used to be. [Hyundai] looks at Toyota and Honda. We look at Nissan and Mazda."

CNW's Spinella said the plan--at least the Hyundai part of it--is working, partly because new vehicles like Hyundai's premium Azera sedan and redesigned vehicles like Sonata are casting a halo over the entire brand. (Still, news broke yesterday that Michelle Cervantez, vice president of marketing since 2005 for Hyundai Motor America, has left the company.)

"People are looking at it as not being cheap, but being competitive with Nissan, and with some Toyota products," he said.

Kia, which has posted nine consecutive months of record sales, sold 23,877 vehicles last month, and 221,998 vehicles YTD--a 2.6 percent increase versus the same nine months of 2005.

Most Kia customers are former Chrysler, Ford and GM drivers, said Beavis, "so the worse it gets for them the better it gets for us." Beavis joined the company in May last year from Mitsubishi Motors North America.

The company, Beavis said, is shifting its marketing and media dollars away from national network TV, and toward Internet, events, Web, print, and cable.

"We were very TV-centric when I got here; it's still the bulk of what we do, but it's now more evenly divided between network, cable and spot." He added that Kia will increase its focus on regional marketing.

Beavis added that Kia is also bulking up on ride-and-drive type events that get consumers behind the wheel of its cars. This summer, the company ran 19 such events at soccer events through sponsorship of American Youth Soccer, and with Magic Johnson Enterprises in urban markets.

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