Why Hyundai’s Dead Serious About Its Super Bowl Ads

Many marketers see the Super Bowl as a platform to compete for the best-remembered ad, a goal that usually leads to one-upsmanship in outrageous humor. But Joel Ewanick, vp of marketing for Hyundai, doesn’t see it that way. The Korean carmaker is running six ads around the Super Bowl, including two during the big game and none of them are what you’d call rib-ticklers. Instead, they are dead serious and quiet. The return to the Super Bowl was a no-brainer for Hyundai, which introduced its Assurance plan—which promised that those who lost their jobs could return their car—in last year’s game. That program helped Hyundai post an 8 percent year-over-year volume increase in 2009, a horrible year for most automakers. Ewanick, Brandweek’s Grand Marketer of the Year last year, spoke with us last week. Below are some excerpts from that conversation.

Brandweek: Auto’s a category not generally known for humorous advertising, yet in the Super Bowl, they often go for laughs. Why not Hyundai?
Joel Ewanick:
Well, we set the tone about three years ago using Jeff Bridges [for voiceovers]. It’s a very approachable, very aw-shucks presentation. It allows us to be a bit boastful, but it comes across OK because it doesn’t sound boastful. It sounds like we’re giving out information, and we don’t see a reason why we would change that tonality. We don’t need horse heads in our bed. [Ewanick was referencing Audi’s Super Bowl ad last year, which spoofed a famous scene in The Godfather.] We feel we have a very compelling story. We’ve had this circled on our calendar for 30 months. We knew this day was coming. When we launched the Genesis two years [ago] in the Super Bowl, we thought it really represented everything great about how we’re building cars today. It won Car of the Year, and we also talked about that in the Super Bowl. We didn’t want to do something that was funny. We wanted to do something that was engaging and high-energy and drove people to the Web. You might recall that we also launched the Assurance [program] in [last year’s] game, which was a very straightforward message. We check our ROI very closely for these kinds of expenditures. We spent a lot of money last year, and each was a foundational piece that allowed us to get to the Sonata.

BW: How many people have taken you up on the Assurance offer?
Less than 100.

BW: Why do you think that is?
The primary reason is people need a car. It’s their means to make money, to have a livelihood. When I was doing some research on this program, I remember finding some books on the Great Depression. I found a lot of pictures, and I’d show people and ask, “What do you see in these pictures of people?” You’d see people and their car. They may move; they may go somewhere else—but they’ve got to have their car; they’ve got to make a living. It’s very important to people. In California, in most places, it’s a huge issue. Public transportation isn’t what it should be. So it’s still a very big factor in the purchase decision, and it’s one of [the]pillars of our marketing for this year—just one them. We spent a lot of time this month and a lot of money talking about Assurance. I know that when we stopped advertising as much last September, our unaided awareness of it started to drop off. And [consumers] started giving credit—too much credit—to our competitors. We brought it back, and we’ve seen our unaided [awareness] go up again. Aided was always good, but unaided, it makes me nervous that people don’t think of us as the Assurance company.

BW: How have you laid out your buys this year? 
We have six spots on Sunday. One is in the pregame. We have three in the prekick, which is that 20 or 30 minutes before the game, and we have two in game—one in the first quarter and one in the second quarter. What’s good for us is the prekick and the first two commercials are in a very tight position—they’re only an hour and a half apart. Our goal is to own that automotive story in the first half of the game…A lot of advertisers fall into the trap [where] they try to be funny to break through. We got really fortunate. Pepsi pulled out. We had good positioning before, but now it’s even better. We moved into two A positions. One is 2A—second pod, first quarter—8A should be the second pod in the second quarter. Because we’re in an A position, it gives us a chance to do something a little different than we might have done if we were at the beginning of the pod or the end. So we’re going to take the shot at being quiet. We’re gonna take you down, and we’re gonna tell our story and show the car and make a nice little statement about the car. If there’s a funny commercial after that, I don’t care. We’ve made our point. But if you go from a Budweiser shot to a quiet spot, I think we’d lose.

BW: But are people buying cars?
Oh yeah. January’s turning out to be a decent month for us. We finished out the year pretty strong, and we’re actually pretty happy where we are. It’s looking like a 10.2, 10.3 seasonally adjusted sales rate for the year, where three or four years ago we were at 16 million, so you’ve taken a third of the market away. It makes it much more competitive. I’m often asked, “You gained a lot of momentum, a lot of market share last year—how will you maintain it?” The way I see it—and I’m a bit of [a] history buff—is we saw the way Toyota, Honda and Nissan did back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. They took advantage. They took advantage of the gas prices. They quickly moved to make a product that was very relevant at the time. We see [the Sonata] and the Tucson as being very well-timed because this car comes out at exactly the right time: We’re still in a rough patch, and it’s a very good value.