- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

“We don’t want hamsters to become the image of our brand,” noted Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing for Kia. He was referring to the all-new 2010 Kia Soul’s eye-catching advertising campaign that uses rows of hamsters running in cages alongside the trendy Soul.

Unlike the Soul, the 2010 Forte — the Korean automaker’s all-new compact sedan — is not a trendsetter in advertising or looks, but it does have style and the kind of gentle price tag for which the Korean brand is known. Replacing the Spectra, Kia’s bread-and-butter, entry-level compact model, this new variation starts at $13,695.

According to Kia’s marketing spiel, the Forte is designed for a “passionate pragmatist who is thoughtful, optimistic, a leader who doesn’t follow trends.”

Clearly, Kia is teeing up to compete on a new level in the inexpensive-but-not-cheap market. The company’s aggressive marketing has boosted the number and the quality of its buyers.

“The Soul had significant sales coming from markets traditionally held by Toyota and Honda,” said Mr. Sprague, who promises, “The story will continue.”

Kia understands that it originally made its mark for being a value brand, but the stakes are changing. Over the past few years, the automaker has added upscale features and technologies that rival other manufacturers.

And it’s not just today’s competitors that Kia is watching: The company sees the Chinese on the horizon, poised to flood global markets with cars also priced to sell.

“At some point in time the Chinese will make product offerings here, and it is anticipated that it will all be about value and price,” said Russell D. Wagner, managing partner of David & Goliath, Kia’s Los Angeles-based advertising agency.

What is the challenge for marketing the Forte? “There wasn’t one specific thing about the car; it became the total package, and that’s what we had to communicate,” Mr. Wagner said.

In the ad campaign, Kia wanted to capture the great styling of the car and tell the story with a striking visual impact. “We thought that animals are quick reads and they can represent certain things,” Mr. Wagner noted.

Thus, the agency came up with the idea of pairing animals that are direct opposites. For instance, a peacock represents styling and a tortoise stands for safety. The camel is fuel-efficient; the cheetah is fast. (Forte claims class-leading horsepower.) Then there’s the large trunk (biggest in class) teamed up with a powerful car, thus the horse for power, the elephant for the large trunk.

While other manufacturers are pulling back on advertising spending, Kia sees this as an opportunity to surge forward. The proof is in the sales. For example, since last year Kia has seen an 80 percent increase in Northeast sales. A big feather in Kia’s cap? Yes, indeed. The Northeast is an audience that has been less than excited about the brand in the past.

“We believe we have a hit on our hands,” Mr. Sprague said. For example, when they did a blind product road test in Philadelphia putting the Forte up against the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Honda Civic, the Forte came out No. 1 among testers.

Mr. Sprague added, “Usually when you take the tape off the badge, the consumer says, “Oh, no — not a Kia.” For the first time in the history of Kia, they said, “Oh, yeah.”

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