- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Robot cutouts shot fluorescent lights across a dancing crowd. The band MGMT rocked its dance-party staple “Kids.” Girls with feathers in their hair crowd-surfed. No, Urban Outfitters wasn’t throwing a pre-Halloween bash.

Call it “Mad Men” going urban and hipster for Gen Y.

It was the automaker Kia’s new marketing campaign, the Kia Soul Collective, a 10-city tour using hip warehouse concerts and art displays to showcase the new sport utility vehicle the Soul. During the D.C. stop last month, participants could test-drive the car to receive free concert tickets to the private MGMT show. The Kia campaign will hit other major cities, including Atlanta, Boston and New York.

The Soul Collective demonstrates an innovative way to solve the “problem of clutter” that Malcolm Gladwell described in his best-seller “The Tipping Point.” How can a company stand out among today’s cluster parade of billboards, flashy signs and print ads?

Kia’s answer: a distinctive branding relationship with consumers.

The event wasn’t designed to drive up sales directly. Kia wanted to create an emotional relationship with its target demographic and provide them with the excitement of seeing one of their favorite bands in concert, said Jeff Tammes, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Cornerstone Promotions, who helped direct the Kia campaign.

“Today brands that are successful will naturally fit into the lifestyle of the consumer,” he told The Washington Times.

Long gone are the days of consumers viewing a company as an abstract and industrial Henry Ford assembly line. Companies don’t just want to create products but to manufacture a personality as well.

Kia recruited an edgy group of young artists to contribute to the tour, including design trendsetter Jeff Staple; filmmakers Jonas and Francois, directors of the Justice music video that marked the advent of the graphic T-shirt; and singer Janelle Monae, who claims to be a Martian from another planet.

Kathryn Cima, manager of sponsorship and promotions at Kia, said, “The Soul is a design departure. It’s a game changer. We’re launching the Soul for a Gen Y audience. We understand this target demographic. We are speaking directly to them in a way that is meaningful, engaging and resonant.”

The “engaging” factor in advertising today goes beyond wanting a consumer to purchase a product. It’s almost anti-advertising because instead of bombarding consumers with a push to buy the product itself, the strategy is to let consumers associate how the product already fits into their lifestyle.

So, what lifestyle did consumers perceive Kia to be advocating?

Many of the 20-somethings interviewed after the MGMT show described the event as “really hipster.”

“MGMT didn’t have any of their own art up,” said Joseph Parra, a Baltimore art student majoring in painting. “It was all KIA hipster marketing promotion. I think people were pretty aware of that.”

The age of the hipster as an alternative fashion subculture may be officially over when Korea’s second-largest automaker can successfully replicate the aesthetic. Or maybe it’s companies themselves that are creating subcultures as their products carry an imbedded anthem of branding. For example, any 22-year-old knows buying a PBR doesn’t just mean someone is thirsty but demonstrates an association with Portland, bicycles and, sure, hipsters.

The Soul Collective can’t be categorized as a single label, Mr. Tammes said.

“We’re just celebrating emerging art,” he said. “The Kia badge is about innovation and standing out from others. It’s about individualism and consumers’ ability to think for themselves.”

Kia’s advertising featured the theme of sheep and robots, symbolizing that by purchasing a Soul the consumer stands out from the masses.

Yet, ironically in the age of branding and mass production, it’s getting harder and harder for individuals to stand out, as everyone has access to identity-signifying products. More than 7,000 people have attended Kia Soul Collective events. As large groups of consumers resonate with a product’s symbolic branding message, cultures like “hipster” emerge. Subculture labels, like branding, define identity in an age of mass production.

This new approach seems to be boosting Kia’s sales. In 1999, Kia began working with the creative alternative ad agency David & Goliath, and moved Kia from the No. 9 motor company to No. 5, past Volkswagen and Volvo.

At the D.C. Soul Collective stop, Mr. Parra, who had waited three hours to test-drive the Soul told The Times after the MGMT show, “It was so worth it.”

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