'Challenger's mentality' dissipates as Koreans gain

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South Korean importers Hyundai Motor America and sibling Kia Motors America have enjoyed significant, consecutive jumps in annual vehicle sales in the past few years. Both marketers expect 2002 to be another banner year, albeit without the high peaks of the past.

Hyundai has targeted sales of 370,000 vehicles this year, says Paul Sellers, director of marketing communications. That would be a 7% jump over 2001's 346,235. "Last year, our objective was 284,000 and we blew past it," he says. "This year we're confident we can hit and surpass 370,000. We're straining our [production] capacity."

That's one reason Hyundai is considering building a U.S. plant in either Alabama or Kentucky.

Although Mr. Sellers says his ad budget will be flat compared with 2001, regional dealer ad groups will spend more-probably at least 7% more-to match the projected increase in car and truck sales. Hyundai spent $170 million in measured media last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

Cordiant Communications Group's Bates USA West, Irvine, Calif., is defending the U.S. creative account it has held since Hyundai bowed here in 1986. In late January, Bates lost Hyundai's U.S. media planning and buying account to Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York. South Korean parent Hyundai Motor Co. initiated the media review for the U.S. consolidated Hyundai and Kia account. Bates wasn't invited.

Mr. Sellers says the brand's ad message will evolve. "I wouldn't be surprised if you see a shift from" the "Driving is believing" tag, he says. That tag shows a "challenger's mentality," and Mr. Sellers would like to see the brand speak with the confidence of an established competitor in the same Tier One arena as Toyota Motor Sales USA and American Honda Motor Co.

Kia will increase spending, says Kia Marketing Director Rick Weisehan. It spent $205 million in measured media last year, CMR says. As a launch, the all-new Sorento compact sport-utility vehicle will get Kia's biggest support via independent davidandgoliath, Los Angeles.

Kia is looking to increase direct mail and college campus marketing; it is studying owner retention programs. Mr. Weisehan says Kia wants to repeat for the Sorento the success of its partnership last fall with DreamWorks SKG, linking the Sedona minivan with the video release of "Shrek."

No other auto brands enjoyed the sizable year-over-year sales hikes of the two South Korean brands. Hyundai sold 346,235 vehicles last year, a 41.7% jump from 2000, says Advertising Age sibling Automotive News. Kia's 2001 sales rose 39.3% to 223,721.

The third South Korean player, Daewoo Motor America, has stalled. It sold 48,296 cars last year, 29.4% fewer than in 2000, says Automotive News. Daewoo switched strategy several times, moving from plans for four autonomous U.S. regions and ad agencies to selling via college students to a traditional dealer approach. A U.S. agency review has been on hold since General Motors Corp. began negotiations to buy Daewoo.

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