Ad Age Spends a Day With Hyundai -- Yes, Hyundai

Our Reporter Tags Along on Automaker's Uncensored Driving Event and Watches the Converts Roll In

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PHILADELPHIA (AdAge.com) -- Despite a cool and breezy Friday morning in late August, Blake Kanickij is working up a sweat as he scrubs a portable floor in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Ballpark on his hands and knees. "Getting a good day is the hardest part," said the project manager for Jack Morton, in between laboring to remove scuff marks left by past visitors and instructing local union laborers laying a rubberized floor. "Managing the people and the process is easy."

Credit: Michael Bush
And the 50-person team he's choreographing on behalf of Interpublic Group of Cos.' experiential marketing agency is indeed making it look deceptively simple to turn one of the stadium's main parking lots into the fourth stop on the 10-city "Hyundai Uncensored" national tour. This leg of the tour, held at the home of the Philadelphia Phillies and its fans, aims to turn locals into Hyundai fans by putting them behind the wheel of a Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, taking them through their paces with a course consisting of hairpin turns, evasive maneuvers, high-speed straightaways and conditions that mimic icy roads.

Less than 24 hours before consumers start showing up, the scene doesn't look like much of anything. The to-do list, which must be completed by the end of the day, includes: unloading two car carriers and two Hyundai-wrapped shipping containers filled with furniture, flooring and electronics; erecting tents; securing electricity; anchoring the tents with weights; putting up Hyundai signs and building an elaborate driving course using 14 professional drivers from Precision Dynamics International, a producer of automotive experiential-marketing programs. That alone involves laying out more orange cones than it seems possible to count.

As Mr. Kanickij and his Jack Morton cohorts, Dan Beilke, another project manager and tour manager Art Hanson, shuttle back and forth between the main staging area carrying boxes or maneuvering forklifts, Doc McKinney, head of the PDI team, slowly drives a car through the course. Via walkie-talkie, he instructs his team to reconfigure cones in order to make the turns tighter or the turning circle, where consumers will test the car's turning radius, a tad smaller. PDI drivers will accompany consumers while they drive the course.

Mr. McKinney, who has worked as a consultant and stunt driver in a Hollywood film and in TV commercials, has been doing these programs with Hyundai for the past six years and said he has witnessed firsthand the impact these events have on consumers and the brand.

"When I first started working with Hyundai it was clear that consumers just thought of Hyundai as a throwaway car and one that they didn't give any serious consideration to," he said, while test driving the course. "I have seen that perception change 180 degrees over the years. And, in my opinion, it's things like this that are responsible for that. Consumers can drive these cars in a hassle-free environment and in conditions you won't get in a road test with a dealer. No one is in sales mode here forcing them to sign or buy anything."

Of course, the idea isn't just to let consumers experience the cars but to evangelize about them, and Hyundai gives them plenty of ways to do that. After the test drives, they are encouraged to linger in a gleaming white lounge under a huge Hyundai-branded tent and listen to music, drink Starbucks frappuccinos and use iPads available to them -- hopefully to spread the gospel about Hyundai.

"This place is wired to let consumers tell their friends about the experience," said Jaime Cabrera, creative director at Jack Morton and designer of the space. "The iPads are loaded with Twitter and Facebook, and you can check in on Foursquare when you get here. We set this up so they will hang around, talk to us and other consumers about Hyundai, have a [frappuccino] and listen to music after they test drive the cars."

They can also take a less private approach by entering a Sonata equipped with a video camera, where they can close the door and rave, complain, or, as Mr. Cabrera recalled, do what one excited attendee did on the tour's last stop did and make up a song about the driving experience they just had.

Under former marketing chief Joel Ewanick and his No. 2 Chris Perry, both of whom have decamped to General Motors, Hyundai gained steam in the auto world with clever advertising, a media strategy to buy big-event programming like the Super Bowl and a groundbreaking Buyer's Assurance program that allowed consumers to return a new Hyundai if they lost their income. But Monique Morin Kumpis, Hyundai's manager-experiential marketing and strategic alliances, said there's no substitute for getting behind the wheel.

"Ad campaigns tell a story but there's nothing there for a consumer to touch and feel," she said. "The key is letting consumers draw their own conclusions but to do that they need to have the Hyundai experience. This is beyond tents and cones. With everything they can do here it becomes an experience and the more we can get them driving our cars and telling their friends about us, the better." Ms. Kumpis said she has seen consumers, at other tour stops, jump out of Sonatas and claim they were going to purchase one that very day.

While that didn't happen on this day, at least not in the first few hours of the event, it was clear that the experience had significantly shifted the mindset of some of those in attendance.

Jack Morton estimates that nearly 1,000 people attended the event over the weekend. The lines for the test drives were always full and most of those who drove the cars were eager to get on line for the video car and talk about the experience. Copies of their videos are sent to them and Hyundai also edits the videos for a reel it posts on its Facebook page.

(Some of the footage they are compiling from this tour will eventually be used in future commercials, but for now it is all being posted on Facebook. Similar footage used in prior TV spots came from a very small mall tour Hyundai did for Sonata earlier in the year.)

One couple waiting on line to shoot a video said: "Hyundai should do this course outside all their dealerships and they would sell a car every time."

Mike, a 40-something Toyota owner who was also waiting to make a video about the experience, said he is in the market for a new car but hates dealerships and likes the "low-key" atmosphere of the Uncensored event.

He said his 12-year-old Camry is in the shop every other week and that the test drive he just finished is forcing him to reconsider his longstanding allegiance to Toyota. "After this and all the issues Toyota has had, I am seriously considering purchasing a Hyundai now."

Hyundai by the Numbers

10: Number of cities the Hyundai Uncensored tour is hitting

10,000: Number of people attending Hyundai Uncensored events to date

363,491: Number of Hyundais sold in the U.S. last year

120: Number of miles each Sonata drives at every tour stop

6: Number of cars Hyundai uses on the tour

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