The quality of a brand is determined by
the promises made and the promises kept.
THE COMPONENTS OF OUR BRAND
Every piece of Kia communication is made up of three parts:
THE BRAND MESSAGE. This is the overall key message or
messages we’re trying to communicate.
THE BRAND PERSONALITY. The overriding tone, attitude
and believability of that message.
THE BRAND ICONS. The typefaces, design, colors, music,
voiceover and other executional elements we use to deliver the
message and the personality.
When all three of these elements are delivered in a consistent
and cohesive manner, then we have the tools to create a long-
term, successful brand.
The American auto landscape is littered with cars that didn’t live up to their promises of quality.
We need to remember that the Kia brand has a niche in America’s heart not just because the price
is less, but because we’re constantly striving to build reliable, durable, quality cars for them.
THE KIA BRAND MESSAGE
Our long-term brand message is a value message: quality vehicles
for less. The reason we want to own this over time is because our
target cares about their money and how they spend it. If it weren’t
an issue, people would just buy the most established, reliable,
durable brands – Toyotas, Hondas,
Explorers and Jeeps.
It’s this value message that gives
Kia a legitimate reason to exist in
Does a value strategy mean we’re
a price brand? NO!
The price is important, but it’s meaningless without a quality
context. (For example, are consumers getting a Yugo-like car for
under $10,000, or a Honda-like car? We need to let them know.)
What needs to be defined is quality.
In the case of Sephia, we need to convince the consumer that we
have long-term, Japanese-like reliability. If we do that convincingly,
the price will close the sale.
In the case of Sportage, we need to convince the consumer that
we’re capable of building a durable, authentic sport utility vehicle.
If we do that job convincingly, the price will close the sale.
This bears repeating because it’s important: PRICE IS NOT OUR
KEY MESSAGE, THE QUALITY OF THE PRODUCT IS.
So the overall Kia brand message is: Quality vehicles for less.
Our individual product strategies are:
Sephia. Japanese-like quality for less (long-term reliability).
Sportage. An authentic SUV for less (bullet-proof durability).
Future cars would also be used to define quality. For example,
the Credos could help define quality in terms of fit and finish,
quiet, ride and comfort. The minivan could take on urban durability.
That way, each product is clarifying and contributing to the overall
DQR of the brand.
Of course, each car would still have to deliver this DQR for less
than any other car in its class.
Kia: Honda-like quality or Yugo-like? If we don’t constantly
reinforce quality, quality, quality, the consumer will position
OR us as a price brand. Not unlike what they did with Yugo.
After only a few short years, they ended up as the “butt” of
a few jokes.
Brand advertising that drives traffic.
The prevailing attitude in the car industry is that typical “brand”
advertising only needs to work in the top three sections of the
Allison Fisher Purchase Funnel (Awareness, Familiarity and
Opinion). Then they create a whole different set of tactical
messages (price, features, deals) to
drive the consumer through the Potential Vehicle Buyers
bottom three sections of the funnel
(Consideration, Shopping, Purchase).
But we’re not a typical car company. Opinion
We believe that the overall Kia value Consideration
message works well all the way down Shopping
to the point where the salesman
closes the sale. Unlike most car
This Allison Fisher Purchase Funnel
companies that have “image” ads shows the buying process of the typical
and “tactical” ads, all our messages car purchaser.
are designed to drive dealer traffic and sell cars. That’s one
advantage of having a brand message that focuses on value.
Having said that, we still need programs, offers and incentives
to get the consumer to act TODAY. To go to the dealer NOW.
And to do that, we need to get more specific and more timely
with our value message (i.e., a limited time lease offer.)
When planning these specific programs, we should make sure
that we reinforce the overall Kia brand message in one of two ways:
1. Add dimension to the overall quality message (better ride,
better interiors, longer warranties, knee air bags, etc.).
2. Improve the price perception (leasing options, lower monthly
payments, cash-back incentives, more features for the money).
As long as we focus our tactics in these two areas of quality and
price, we’ll continue to drive people into our showroom.
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Today.
Immigrants adopted a certain personality that allowed them to be assimilated into the American culture
seamlessly. They were hardworking, humble, honest, expressed their common humanity and had a sense
of humor – about themselves and their situation.
THE KIA BRAND PERSONALITY
The Kia brand personality consists of five traits:
Hardworking. Humble. Honest. A touch of Humanity. And a
sense of Humor.
These traits not only capture the Kia
brand personality, but also represent the
core personality traits of most successful
American immigrants. Immigrants who
exhibited these personality traits – whether
they were Irish, German, Italian, Japanese
or Pakistani – managed to assimilate into
the American culture at a much quicker rate than immigrants
who didn’t. These traits made it easier for the minorities to be
liked and accepted, without raising the ire of the majority.
Valuable traits to be aware of when you’re an unknown Korean
brand trying to capture the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of
the American public.
By religiously sticking to this brand personality the past five
years, Kia has managed to create an emotional bond with the
American consumer that has allowed us to weather many of the
rational reasons they have to NOT buy a Kia: Hyundai’s previous
failures; being last in the J.D. Power customer satisfaction polls
two years in a row; and the Korean financial crisis. Despite all
these hurdles, we’ve managed to drive showroom traffic and
become one of the most well-liked car brands in America. And
we’ve managed to do all this despite being consistently outspent
and outshouted by the competition.
So as long as Kia is categorized as an “immigrant” brand and
continues to reside in the “automotive minority” of America, it’s
imperative that we understand and stick to these personality
traits. This Kia personality should be utilized by everyone who
communicates with the myriad of Kia audiences: Dealers,
consumers, financial community, the press and even internally
with Kia’s employees.
The five H-words hold the key to Kia’s personality.
Americans love people and brands who
give 110%. They love brands that will do
whatever it takes to make sure things are
done right. That go, pardon the expression,
the extra mile. That’s why Americans love Kia.
When we promise reliability, we don’t just
take the car for a spin around the block; we
take it for a 100,000-
mile spin around the
country. When we
we don’t just kick the tires a couple of times
and hope the cars will disappear off the
Dealers’ lots. No, we walk the talk. We give
our cars to the most abusive drivers in
America and let them give it their best shot –
taxi drivers, pizza delivery drivers, rental car
drivers, university students. We work harder
at pleasing our customer than just about any
other car company in America.
It’s this work ethic that endears us to the hardworking American
worker who just happens to be our best customer.
Our 100,000-mile test not only proved we were hardworking, but it
introduced humility to the brand. We never passed the Honda.
We never made a claim that we were better. How un-Detroit-like.
Working hard doesn’t mean diddly if it doesn’t come with a
healthy dose of humility. The surest way to alienate the American
consumer is to get too “uppity” or “get above your station.” VW
understood this. In an age when Detroit was selling bigness and
beauty, Volkswagen came in and captured
the hearts of Americans by admitting
they were small and ugly. That humility
sold a lot of the “People’s Car” to the
American people. Avis did the same
with the “We Try Harder” campaign.
Kia captured that humility when we
went 100,000 miles and never passed the
Honda Civic. We bowed our heads and
simply stated to the American public that
we were striving to be as good as a
Honda. It was that respect for the “gold
standard of the category” that let the American consumer emotionally
side with us. Remember, this is a country where “The Little Train
That Could” still brings tears to the eyes of parents who read it to
their kids. This is a a country where anyone who can prove they
have a better mousetrap still has a shot at
striking it rich. A nation that loves to root for
little guy against the big guy. (Note of
caution: They love the little guy as long as he
isn’t an arrogant little twit with a big mouth.
Then they go out of their way to make sure the
big guy smacks him down and shuts him up.)
This is a nation that roots for the underdog.
(Chicago Cubs fans take this to the extreme.)
So whenever we get an inkling to make a
big deal out of a little superiority claim,
remember that our continued success lies in assuming the underdog
status and being viewed as “the little car company that could.”
This is about backing up our promises with proof, not puffery.
This was never more evident than in the recent Dealer meeting in
Las Vegas. The Kia management team turned
a stoic ballroom full of skeptics into a party
room full of true believers with their tell-it-
like-it-is personality and incredible depth of
timely, relevant facts. It’s this honesty that
creates real trust in a brand. A trust that comes
from not ignoring people’s true concerns.
From not sugarcoating the bad news. From
not doing verbal sleights-of-hand to make
ourselves look better. It’s respecting the
intelligence of our audience and hitting
their concerns head on.
In advertising, we address people’s real-
world concerns of reliability and durability
with real-world testing. In our brochures,
we address people’s skittishness about our
legitimacy as a car company with “skeptics
possible, we disarm
our audience with honesty.
Given how skeptical people are about
advertising, the media and PR in general,
the quickest way to create credibility and
believability in the marketplace is to
honestly deal with the issues. As they say:
“When all else fails, tell the truth.”
“It is clear that the people on the inside (the people making the ads)
understand the consumer … they cut through the typical car ads by using
common language and not using buzzwords found in all other automotive
advertising.” – MARIE RICCI, RHODE ISLAND KIA DEALER.
It’s this sense of humanity that clearly defines Kia and helps
differentiate us from all other car companies. We look at what people
really do, how they really buy, what their real concerns are, and then
we reflect those insights honestly in our communications.
This simple humanity expresses itself in the language we use.
While most car companies are assaulting the consumer with words
put together by assembly line robots – rack and pinion this, ABS that
– we’re talking to the consumer like we’re talking to a friend. Instead
of clinically talking about DQR, we say, “Finally an economy car that
won’t make your neighbors giggle or your mechanic rich.”
This humanity expresses itself in the content of our communications.
We honestly address our customers’ desire to be respected and
informed. Instead of ignoring the product and telling people they’ll
be sexier, funnier, hipper, cooler,
thinner or prettier if they buy our
car, we go right to the heart of their
concerns: quality, durability and
reliability. In the case of the Sephia, we
do this by demonstrating our product
in real-world situations, not just
situations artificially created in a lab.
The importance of humanity can best be summed up by conceptual
artist Mike Kelley: “The frightening aspect of advertising is that
everything is perfect. You like it and at the same time it’s scary
because you know that there’s all this stuff that’s left out. That stuff
that’s left out is you.”
The secret to Kia advertising is NOT leaving our customer out of
the advertising. Not making our advertising so slick, so overly
thought out, that we eliminate the little eccentricities that make
people people, and our communication, well, uh ... human.
None of the previous traits would be
Kia without our sense of humor. It’s
what makes people want to watch our
ads over and over again. It’s what
makes the brand likable. And as the
Ogilvy & Mather Centre for Research
& Development says:
“People who like your ads are twice
as likely to buy your products.”
Sounds good to us.
And although there’s all kinds of humor, the secret to Kia’s humor is
the ability to laugh at ourselves. To put our product in situations that
no other car company would dare put
their car into. It’s the ability to make
people laugh without being divisive,
mean-spirited or resorting to dark humor.
This everyman type of humor is what
makes Kia, Kia. It can be as silly as trying
to make a 10-point turn in a narrow
alleyway. Or as subtle as the knowing look
a wife gives
her husband who goes all the way to
the tip of Baja for a couple of tacos. It
can be as broad as our car running
around America with a Keystone Kop-
like frenzy. Or as understated as a N.Y.
taxi driver saying apologetically, “Sorry,
Mr. Hot Dog Man.”
Our humor also differentiates our
brand within the car industry, which takes itself way too seriously.
The content of our messages should be serious – reliability, durability,
affordable lease programs, financial stability – but the way we
communicate those messages should never be.
Every message should be laced with a smile.
The Kia personality summary (the 5 H’s):
A BIT OF HUMANITY.
A SENSE OF HUMOR.
No one has stated the importance of our personality better than a
researcher from Allison Fischer, one of the top automotive research
companies in the world:
“If Toyota had the Kia personality, there would be no stopping them.”
That about sums it up. If we continue in our quest to build
cars that truly rival the Japanese for quality, and we continue to
communicate all our messages within the Kia personality, we’ll
have all the ingredients we need to be one of the most successful,
well-liked brands in America.
And once that happens, look out Toyota. There will be no
Bartles and Jaymes epitomized the brand personality we’re talking
about: Hardworking, humble, honest, a bit of humanity and an
“everyman” sense of humor.
THE KIA BRAND ICONS.
These are the key brand icons that we want stored in the long-
term memory of our target. They should reinforce the quality of the
vehicles. And represent all the brand personality traits.
In the interest of allowing some flexibility in the execution of
Kia communications, we won’t dictate that every icon be in every
piece of communication. However, whenever possible, we should
incorporate as many as possible.
The Kia icons are probably most developed and refined in the
television ads, since more people have been exposed to the brand
through TV than through any other medium. So we’ll start there.
The odometer is fast becoming a Kia icon representing long-term reliability. We call it our Odomobile.
Hopefully this icon will keep going, and going, and going, and …
The music. Our criteria is that if you can imagine the music
being played on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,”
then it’s probably Kia-like music.
It’s music that mainstream America sees as fun, warm and
melodic. It’s acoustic, not electric. Real, not synthesized.
It’s usually fast, making you want to move rather than sit
still (also known as road music).
There’s an energy to the music – a spontaneity – that isn’t
captured in most session music. Most session music is planned out,
part by part, and has all the humanity taken out of it.
(Emmylou Harris calls it “taking the living room
out of the music.” When musicians sit in a living
room and jam, there’s a certain spark that
exists. When they’re sitting in a studio with
a producer overthinking each part, there’s a
much more sterile, robotic feel to the music.)
Kia music is living room music. And in
fact, all our musicians do play in a room
together and improvise against a set chordal
structure. It’s this improvisation that gives the
music the energy it has.
It’s probably Kia music
if you can imagine it being
SIMPLE StorylineS. We tell stories that have a played on Garrison Keillor’s
Prairie Home Companion.
beginning, middle and end. We don’t just collect
a lot of disparate imagery and put it to music. We don’t use analogies
to make our point. We tell a story using real people, with our product
as hero. That last part is key. The product is always a central, integral
part of the story. Not some tacked-on afterthought to some elitist’s
REAL Casting. We cast real-looking people, not caricatures. We
cast people that we instantly like, not people we need to get to
know to like (we only have 30 seconds). We try to cast people who
live in the location we’re trying to showcase. We don’t cast a New
York taxi driver in L.A. Or cast a Louisiana swamp tour operator in
New York. This integrity keeps our people real, and not clichéd.
And little regional quirks emerge that communicate their
authenticity, and consequently, ours.
Understated voiceover. His informal, colloquial feel is important
because we’re a foreign brand. It makes us more American. That
also affects how we write our copy. It also has
to have that colloquial feel. So instead of saying, “The Sportage
opens up a whole new world of adventure for under $15,000,”
we say, “The Sportage will get your mojo going for under $15,000.”
His voice is not cynical or mean-spirited.
His voice gives us a thread of calm and a voice of reason against
the constant movement and physical humor. Because of that, he
adds a lot of credibility to whatever message we’re delivering.
That voice of reason is the voice of Kia.
Speeded-up footage. We speeded the footage up originally to tell
more of a story. To pack a 100,000-mile trip into 30 seconds. But
we also did it to give it a Keystone Kops-like feel. To be able to
deliver a serious message about durability and reliability in a
It also let our humor be physical, not cerebral. Which tends to
make it more mainstream than elitist. A lot of our humor comes from
our product constantly going, going, going, no matter what
happens. Not unlike the Energizer bunny. This “Little
Car That Could” mentality makes people smile. We
like that. It makes us smile.
The speeded-up footage also signifies
movement. This may sound simplistic, but
we want to inspire people to move. To act. To
get in their car and go. The car is a very
The humorous, speeded-up American icon. The car represents exploring
footage of the Keystone Kops
was the inspiration for new places and having the freedom to just go
the initial 100,000-mile spot. when you want to go. We want to capture that
feeling in our advertising. I think that’s the reason “Snowdome,”
although a really tasteful spot, didn’t feel Kia-like. Relative to other
Kia spots, it was pretty static. That sense of movement affects our
music, our storyline and our editing. The amount of cuts in a
typical 30-second Kia Spot is 15-16. (Funny, even Snowdome had
14.) The pace of the editing also tends to keep things moving.
What about print?
Typeface. We chose the typeface we chose because it’s well-made,
easy to read and solid looking – qualities that reflect well on our
vehicles. It also had a certain quirkiness that makes it different from
every other typeface in the car industry. It can be loud when we
want it to be, without looking cheap. It can be quiet and tasteful
when we need that feel. There’s also a certain solid, durable,
timeless feel to it without being boring (like Franklin Gothic or
Helvetica). Our typeface also helps provide a solid visual foundation
to support the humor of the photography, the illustrations and the
To paraphrase: It’s about
time every well-made car
had a well-made typeface.
Headlines. The headlines
and body copy have done
more to capture the Kia
personality in print than any
other element. The humility, Our friendly, colloquial, American way of
speaking keeps our ads from sounding like
the humbleness, the humanity we’re running our copy through some foreign
translator. (Lease inexpensive Kia good, no?)
and the humor all express
themselves in the words. Since we’re generally showing the car as
the main visual, the words need to carry a lot of the personality.
That said, we shouldn’t always rely on the headline to carry all
the weight of the personality.
Photography/illustration. Whenever possible, we should
incorporate the Kia humanity and humor in our print visuals. It
may be a cliché, but a picture really is worth 1,000 words. (For
what it’s worth, a non-clichéd picture like the one below is worth
at least 10,000.) Visual humor has worked especially well in the
brochures, and in this year’s Sportage print ads.
For instant communication, memorability
and impact, use images whenever possible.
Layouts.Make them clear, informative,
approachable and human. Enough said.
Here are some other non-
advertising opportunities that
we’ve managed to “Kia-ize.”
Showroom display. We realized
people felt a little uneasy
in the cold, marble floor, black
plexiglass environments of most
car showrooms. So we created a warm, natural, un-Jetson-like Kia
environment within the showroom using natural wood, carpet and
warm colors. We did it by looking at how other value-oriented brands
like The Gap and Crate & Barrel created inviting environments. Then
we applied that knowledge to Kia. It worked.
Interactive unit. Given the newness of our brand and product,
we knew that people needed a bit more information than normal
to get over their innate skepticism about our brand. And we knew
they didn’t necessarily trust the Dealer to completely inform them.
So we gave them a place to go in the showroom that lets them to
get as much information as they needed to make a purchase decision.
Fortunately, this interactive information kiosk just happens to help
the salespeople out, too. It’s a case of having human insights into
two of our audiences and creating
a solution that helps both.
Posters.We realized that people
buy from people who speak their
language. Our launch in New York
used New York street language
with a major New York attitude.
We created empathy by tailoring
the language to the target. As they
say in New York, “Hey, youse got a
problum wit dat?”
THE KIA KOMMANDMENTS
Thou shalt not overpromise. Our mantra is underpromise and
overdeliver. Underpromise and overdeliver. Actions always speak
louder than words. So when you get a hankering to hype, get help.
Or just stop, breathe and repeat after me: underpromise and
Thou shalt not emphasize price over all other messages. Our
brand message is quality vehicles for less. The day that “Kia = less”
overshadows “Kia = quality” is the day we might as well just pack
up all our vehicles, put them on a boat and send them back to
Korea. No one’s going to want them here.
Thou shalt not brag about insignificant competitive differences.
It makes us seem petty and it just pisses people off. Address major
issues like lower prices, better service, longer lasting autos. Those are
things that consumers are looking for. And never run a comparative
ad for revenge, or to validate some corporate sense of superiority.
Consumers will see right through the motive.
Thou shalt not get too elitist, artsy or obtuse. This is the surest
way to convince our target that we’re not talking to them. If you
don’t believe me, watch an account planner with a heavy British
accent try and talk to our target in a focus group. “And a chill filled
the room.” This attitude goes for the language we use, artwork we
commission, directors we pick, speakers we get at dealer meetings,
and the talent we hire.
Thou shalt not lie. Even if you don’t always tell the whole truth,
never lie. Brands are built on trust. One lie destroys that trust. One
spot that lied about Volvo’s capabilities almost destroyed 30 years of
telling the truth. We can’t afford that kind of setback.
Thou shalt not worship at the altar of false automotive icons.
Our strength lies in doing things differently than other car companies
are doing them. Zigging in grass fields and spelling “Bite Me”
while others are zagging. Ye who refuse to follow this simple
commandment shall end up in the valley of marketing darkness,
never to be seen again.
Thou shalt have fun. This is a serious business, with serious money
at stake, and serious marketing decisions to be made – for us. For the
consumer, it’s a time to feel good about themselves, feel good about
their purchase and feel good about our brand. So let them. Always
deliver our serious messages in a fun way. Seriously.
Thou shalt leave room for spontaneity. After we have a very tight
storyline/layout/storyboard okayed, we need to leave room for some
spontaneity. It keeps our work fresh, energetic and human. Some of
our best bits on TV (peeing on the tree, guys jumping on the roof
of the car, Black Guidry talking about getting the couple’s mojo
working) have come about because of this philosophy. It encourages
everyone involved – directors, actors, agency and client – to make
the advertising better.
Thou shalt communicate openly. With ourselves, with the press,
with the consumer and with the dealers. Silence breeds paranoia.
Silence breeds thoughts that are not conducive to building the open,
honest, hardworking brand we want to build. Being inscrutable is
Thou shalt not get bogged down with too many shalt nots. Despite
these commandments, it’s important that we remain open to changing
the rules. Not haphazardly, indiscriminately or individually, but
together. In the constantly changing world of marketing, it’s
imperative that we’re open to new possibilities when others start to
confuse our consumer by coveting what we have created.
That’s about it. Hopefully this gives you a good sense of the criteria
we use to evaluate whether a piece of communication is “Kia-like.”
Spending some time looking through all the Kia communications
should give you a good sense of it, too. From the ads, to the giant
Gorgos, to the national dealer meetings, to the Munroney stickers
on the cars. They work together to create a cohesive, likeable brand.
So go ahead and immerse yourself in it.
If you’re human, have a sense of humor and don’t have stock in
Toyota or Honda, you should love it.
Millions of Americans do.