Hyundai Talks Value, New Cars

Despite losing its chief marketer, Joel Ewanick, earlier this month, Hyundai is charging ahead. The carmaker plans to unveil new vehicles at the New York International Auto Show next week. Christopher Perry, a 10-year Hyundai vet, has temporarily replaced vp of marketing Ewanick, a 2009 Brandweek Grand Marketer of the Year, who left to work for rival Nissan. Perry this morning chatted about Hyundai’s upcoming launches and marketing efforts to support them. He noted that while four in 10 Americans considered purchasing a Hyundai three years ago, now that number is seven out of 10. Perry attributed the increasing interest in the brand to an ongoing commitment to product innovation, backed by marketing and a bigger investment in digital. These, and other factors, have led consumers to perceive Hyundai as no longer the “cheapest option, but the best value option,” Perry said. More excerpts from that conversation are below.

Brandweek: You’re heading up marketing for Hyundai following Joel Ewanick’s departure for Nissan last week. What’s that been like?
Christopher Perry:
It’s been a pretty seamless transition, but with a pretty big workload, of course, not having him here. But it’s been great so far. I’m meeting with the agency, with executive management, with our dealers. We have a dealer counsel sub-committee meeting Wednesday morning where we’ll talk about new campaigns, new initiatives, and they all know me. Other than a little more things to do, it’s been pretty seamless.

BW: Ewanick was a legendary marketer at Hyundai. How has his departure impacted the company’s marketing plans?
Joel has been with the company for three years. He did a fantastic job. He’s a personal friend of mine. I’ve known him for many years. We worked very well together and the attitude of the company is that we wish him well. Hyundai had a lot of successes over the last several years. We’ve been growing since I got here 10 years ago. We certainly had a significant bump in 2009, but that success wasn’t because of one individual person. There were a lot of people that were involved. And we have great products that help us. That’s really what the story is. We have great products that help us and that’s what we’ll be focusing on in 2010.

BW: Hyundai’s breaking a new Times Square billboard campaign next week that launches with the New York International Auto Show. Give us a sneak peek.
The big event is the New York auto show. So we’re introducing two of our new products—the Sonata Hybrid and the Sonata Turbo—and this is the international reveal of those two vehicles. Along with that reveal, we’re taking advantage of our Times Square board and extending the reveal and [showing] live footage [from the show] on our Times Square board. The idea behind both of these products is just the efficiency of the two engines. Hyundai is the leader in fuel economy. It’s the brand with the highest fuel economy in the industry and it’s also the brand with the lowest emissions in the industry. We’re playing on that both at the show and on our billboard at Times Square, so, we’ll pose questions on the board like, “Do you want cleaner air? Well, drive a cleaner car.” And there’ll be a series of street teams in blue Hyundai uniforms cleaning the air with mops and brooms, so that visual is tied to what you see on the interactive display at our Times Square board, that then ties back to what’s going on when we introduce the two new products at the Javits Center. [Ad agencies Innocean and Wow Factor handle creative and digital duties, respectively.]

BW: What are you working on next for Hyundai marketing? What’s the next big marketing push?
Next is the FIFA World Cup. We’re the global partner for the World Cup, and we’re also the automotive sponsor on ESPN and ABC. So, we have a pretty integrated partnership with them in TV, online, print, radio, and we’re working on developing a specific campaign for Hyundai that ties in with the World Cup. It’ll be a brand new campaign and it’s going to be tied to the theme of soccer. So, we’ll have creative that is contextually relevant to the tournament itself.

BW: Hyundai’s “Assurance” program (lose your job, return your vehicle for free) was widely lauded by the advertising trades and auto industry experts as a breakthrough, value offer. Will we likely see more incentives like this? How will Hyundai propel the value message going forward?
Assurance was a consumer-centric program where we looked at what the consumer issues were, identified what they were struggling with and came up with a solution that addressed their concerns. That consumer-centric approach to marketing is going to continue. We introduced the Gas Lock program last year, when gas prices went up. So, we’ll be looking at initiatives like that to stay in touch with the consumer going forward.

But in 2010, we will focus a lot on our new products, so we launched the two new Sonatas, we have the Turbo Sonata that is coming in the fall and Equus, the all-new, premium vehicle that is [also] coming in the early fall. That’s all being announced at the New York auto show. If you look at the history of Hyundai in 2006 and 2007, it follows our [previously announced] 24/7 plan: seven new products in 24 months. Now, we’re in version two of our 24/7 plan. We strongly believe these new products will help us maintain our momentum right now. We’re forecasting a very, very good March, and we look to have that continue through the year.

BW: Lots of talk about innovation and new car launches, but are consumers willing to buy? What’s the state of the American car buyer right now? 
Consumers are in that buying mode. Our market share continues to grow, so I think we still have a great value story, where we’ve added great style, performance and certainly, quality. And, when you add all of that together, it’s a win-win combination, so we’re no longer the cheapest option, but we’re the best value option.

BW: What about marketing? Are you placing a bigger emphasis on digital?
Digital is a big focus in our marketing plans, more so than in the past. [This might sound] a bit boring to you, but in our industry, we need to make sure we have an integrated and seamless experience on the Web, so when you look at our Web sites, or our dealers’ Web sites, it’s an integrated, seamless experience in advertising. We also need to start looking at getting into more multicultural marketing. We’ve been really focused on the general market and have grown our brand there, but as we expand our product line and our growth, we need to expand the market as well.

BW: Is that a big segment of the market?
They’re a huge part of the population. We have some Asian marketing we’re doing now, which has been successful. Research shows that Hispanics are very open to our brand. We have aggressive sales and market share goals, and a lot of it [requires] reaching out to [other segments of the population].

BW: So, how has the auto industry changed, given the turmoil of the last 18 months and recent industry recalls, like in the case of Toyota? How’s that impacted consumers’ purchasing decisions?
With all the turmoil that’s going on in the auto industry, consumers aren’t just going to [default brands]. A lot of things have changed in their minds and they’re doing a bit more homework than usual, [versus before], where they just looked at one or two brands. And I think they are really open to different brands and a variety of brands. They want to understand what’s the best product for them and that helps us. Like I said, if we are going head-to-head against [another brand], more often than not, we’re going to win because of our quality, style, performance and value.