Kia's Sprague Rubs Elbows With NBA Players In 'Court'

SpragueIn addition to Scottie Pippin, Spike Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other National Basketball Association stars, Michael Sprague--the new vice president of marketing at Kia Motors America--was on hand in New York's Union Square on Tuesday. It was part of the "Kia Court" day-long event inaugurating the second season of NBA in which Kia is the official automotive partner.

The weather did not cooperate. As the Kia/NBA tent opened, so did the sky. But even with the deluge, an apt metaphor for the current global auto business, Sprague's outlook for Kia was relatively sunny.

Sprague--who replaced Ian Beavis at the Irvine, Calif.-based Kia in August, and who reports directly to B.M. Ahn, group president and CEO--was most recently at Ford, where he was group marketing manager for Ford's Lincoln Mercury division. He was corporate brand strategy manager at Ford before that. He has also been general manager, global brand marketing for Mazda Motor Corporation in Japan.



Sprague stood still for a little chat.

Q: How do you think Kia will continue to fare in this economy?

A: We have great products, design and quality, and a lot of new products coming at very affordable prices--so we are in the right spot at the right time. It's unfortunate for the U.S. economy, but it's fortunate for Kia because we are going to be very well-positioned.

Q: But isn't Borrego [a traditional SUV launched last year] the wrong vehicle at the wrong time?

A: The product development cycle in automotive is long, and those decisions were made a couple of years ago when that segment was huge. Nobody had a crystal ball to realize gas prices would go to $4 a gallon and that the SUV segment and pickups would implode. But we still firmly believe there is a place for the Borrego in our portfolio because there are always going to be people who need towing capacity, who need seven-passenger capability, and who need the cargo capacity as well. It's very competitive and a great value story.

Q: But who is buying it?

A: We will see people who come in to purchase their next Kia and who see that we now have an SUV; many will be at that life stage where they need something bigger. We are the newest vehicle in the segment, so the 83% of consumers doing research online will see that Kia also has this new SUV, and that we have gotten good press.

Q: Kia's deal with the NBA is Kia's first of this size. Why is it the right sport and the right level of sponsorship?

A: It is the first time we have taken on something this large. We are really trying to position ourselves as a more youthful and energetic brand, and our relationship with the NBA helps us connect with their passionate and enthusiastic customers. Our strategy is to be in places where people live, work and play; and where they would not normally expect to see Kia, so it's kind of a surprise [that aligns with our] tagline, "The power to surprise." Nobody would have expected Kia to be here in New York's Union Square with an association with the NBA.

We researched this quite a bit, and they have a great demographic: youthful, passionate, and excited.

Q: Are you considering sponsorship of other pro sports?

A: Well, globally, Kia is one of the official partners of FIFA [the international soccer federation], a great partnership that started a year ago; we see a lot of opportunity for it to evolve. But right now we are concentrating solely on the NBA.

Q: You're still getting your feet wet, so to speak. How is the Kia culture different, and how is that a challenge?

A: Well, I worked at Mazda in Japan for a little over a year and a half, so I have experience with working in Asian business culture. Also, all automotive companies right now are facing declining markets; we are all trying to figure out how to connect with consumers earlier and how to make it more of a relationship.

In Kia's case, we are more fortunate than others because we have a cadence of new products coming in the next couple of years: the 2010 Soul is coming next spring, and then we have an all-new compact sedan later this summer. Within three years, the majority of our products will be all new, so where other manufacturers are retrenching in terms of investing in new products Kia is making considerable investment. In fact, we are opening a new plant in Georgia next year to manufacture a new crossover.

Q: How will you shift media strategy? Does the NBA relationship mean you are looking for more sponsorship opportunities?

A: Every product launch is different from demographic and psychographic standpoints; we do recognize there is a certain customer out there who watches a lot of television. We know more about that person now and can be more targeted in terms of which shows we advertise on.

But we also know that the younger consumers are much more into different digital, word of mouth, mobile, cinema--so we will target them differently. One of our issues is awareness, so what's important to us is that we are going to go to places where people don't expect to see the Kia brand. It comes down to the product, and as we bring out these new vehicles, we think our awareness will increase. And with events like this, a lot of people will say: "Wow, I didn't know Kia did that."

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