Small Agency Awards 2012

Kia to Bring Back Hamsters for New Campaign

At Ad Age Confab, Chief Marketer Tips Hat to Agencies for Success of Rodent-Centric Ads, Urges Shops to 'Push the Envelope' With Clients

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Get ready to see more hamsters riding around in the Kia Soul.

The automaker announced it is launching the fourth iteration of its popular rodent-centric marketing campaign, which includes TV spots starring animated hamsters -- often wearing hip-hop gear -- driving the hatchback.

The chain started marketing the car for its launch in 2009, and Michael Sprague, Kia's exec VP-marketing and communications, said at Ad Age 's Small Agency Conference today that the company's sales are up 78% since 2008, thanks in part to the success of the campaign.

Mr. Sprague, who called Kia a brand with a challenger mind-set, said the Soul was so successful because of how the company, thanks in part to its agencies, approached the campaign and how it appealed to its target demographic: Gen Y, or millennials.

To appeal to millennials, the marketer structured the campaign around four pillars of their lifestyles: music, sports, pop culture, and what Mr. Sprague called "connected life," which includes a connection to technology and close ties to friends and family.

Mr. Sprague added that Kia wanted to turn the hamsters into icons, and to do that it had to connect the giant rodents to "music, fashion and pop culture." As for music, the marketer worked with hip-hop duo Black Sheep, whose song "This or That" was featured in a spot.

Despite the success of the hamsters, they almost didn't make the cut. Mr. Sprague said that other concepts were being considered for the campaign, including boars that sported backpacks.

Kia didn't want to become "known as the hamster brand," even though it eventually did, said Mr. Sprague. To branch out beyond the hamsters, Kia came up with promotions such as partnering with NBA star Blake Griffin for the Kia Optima, in which Mr. Griffin dunked over an Optima in the slam-dunk contest during the NBA's All-Star weekend in 2011.

As for the success of Kia's relationships with its agencies -- it's been working with David & Goliath for 13 years, and has long-term relationships with Go Productions, Zeno Group and Animated Designs -- Mr. Sprague said Kia and its agencies are focused risk takers that all value a fast-paced environment.

He added that success can also be attributed to the fact that Kia has no bureaucracy; when it comes to marketing, he only has to consult one person above him: the CEO.

His advice for agencies? "Continue to push the envelope with your clients," he said. "There are no bad ideas. ... After all, we came up with hamsters."